Federal Election

"At its core this is an accessibility issue.” Image: Rame Abdulkader/Fulcrum
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On-campus vote program will not operate for 2021 federal election

Elections Canada has announced it will not proceed with the Vote on Campus initiative for the upcoming federal election. The program was rolled out as a pilot project in 2015, and has been successful at increasing voting accessibility for young voters over the last two elections. 

Canada’s 44th election was called on Aug. 15 and is set for Sept. 20. This leaves a 36-day election period for new voters to register and decide how and where they will cast their ballots. 

“The Vote on Campus program we offered in 2015 and 2019 won’t be available during this election,” reads Elections Canada’s website, which goes on to explain that the combination of COVID-19 and a short election period made the program more difficult to conduct this year than in previous years. 

The elimination of on-campus voting options has caused major concerns for student advocates and youth wings of political parties at the University of Ottawa. 

“I personally find this excuse, quite frankly, unacceptable,” said Armaan Singh Kheppar, advocacy commissioner for the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU). “Whether we have a majority or a minority government, Canada’s only role is to make voting in our elections as seamless, simple and easy as possible.”

Many have questioned Elections Canada’s decision as a non-party affiliated agency with their mission stated to be “Ensuring that Canadians can exercise their democratic rights to vote and be a candidate.”

“Voter turnout among young people is already disproportionately low,” said Ethan Johnson-Smith, vice-president external for the University of Ottawa New Democratic Party (UONDP). “Rather than continue to find ways to increase turnout, Elections Canada has seemingly given up on engaging young people in the democratic process.”

Singh Kheppar spoke to the success of the program sharing that “the Vote on Campus program, where students had access to the polls by close proximity, proved to work in previous elections since [Elections Canada] saw a drastic increase of student participation.”

This federal election marks the second with the 18-37 age group being the largest voting block (the first being the federal election in 2019). Despite representing a larger percentage of voters in the 2019 federal election, youth turnout decreased slightly from the 2015 election, which had the highest youth turnout of any federal election.​​ The 2015 election was the first to implement the Vote on Campus initiative. 

“As the largest voting block in this next election, young people have so much power to shape our country and create meaningful progressive change, all they need is to have [an] accessible way to vote,” said Johnson-Smith. 

“I don’t know what [youth turnout] is going to look like in this election,” said Singh Kheppar, “but I do expect it to go down, because students will have to take initiative to be prepared.” 

“While I do not think in any way that this move is deliberately trying to cut out young voters, it is definitely not doing us any favours,” shared Grant McIlhargey, chair of communications for the uOttawa Greens. 

Lucas Borchenko, national chair of the Young Liberals of Canada, believes the elimination of the program is “at its base level this is, in the opinion of the young liberals of Canada, going to reduce youth turnout, and that is a problem.”

In an email to the Fulcrum, a spokesperson for Elections Canada suggested students vote at their nearest polling station or by mail as options for those hoping to vote in the riding that they live in while at school. 

“Requesting a mail-in package takes time to both arrive to young voters as well as to be returned to Elections Canada,” said McIlhargey. “I think it would be better if the government were to implement a system like Estonia’s, where they allow for online voting which is easier, quicker and less environmentally intensive.” 

Johnson-Smith echoed the need for further options, saying that “while voting by mail is incredibly important, and we would encourage everyone to vote by mail or in advance polls, we should be making sure that there are as many ways as possible to cast our ballots.”

“At its core this is an accessibility issue,” said Borchenko. “We need to convince Elections Canada that this matters to students. We are the voters of today and also the voters of the future.”

Borchenko, Johnson-Smith, and McIlhargey expressed eagerness to work bipartisanly to advocate for the return of the Vote on Campus program for the next election cycle. 

The Fulcrum reached out to the uOttawa Conservatives twice for comment on this matter and did not receive a response.