Canadians will head to the polls on May 2 for the 41st general federal election. But students at Elmira District Secondary School, the majority of whom are too young to vote on May 2, will head to the polls five days earlier, next Wednesday, as part of the nation-wide campaign called Student Vote.
Student Vote is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that began in 2003 with the aim of building the commitment of young Canadians to participate in their democracy. Identical to the official election process, students will have the opportunity to vote for local candidates in their electoral district, with the student results released on election night just ahead of the official results.
In the eight years since its inception, Student Vote has participated in 10 parallel elections: three federal, five provincial, and two municipal, reaching more than 5,000 schools and two million students, according to their official website.
EDSS students Jacob Nederend and Graham Colby have been hard at work on their first Student Vote campaign since the federal election was announced Mar. 26.
“I got involved because I’m not eligible to vote, so this is the closest I can get to doing that,” said 17-year-old Nederend. “My parents are very passionate about politics, so they’ve always encouraged me to get involved with it and I know that once I am old enough I will vote in whatever elections I can.”
For Colby, the desire to become part of the Student Vote organization stems from poor voter turnout in past elections. Some 59.1 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the last federal election, breaking the previous low of just under 61 per cent set in 2004.
“Students all over the world fight for this right and it’s kind of disgusting when you look at what our country is doing – we’re trying to free other countries so they can vote, but we don’t want to practice that right at home – so that kind of bugs me,” said Colby, who at 18 is eligible to vote for the first time.
Along with Ian Cotter, a history, social sciences and civics teach at EDSS, Colby and Nederend have spent the past few weeks calling party candidates, putting up posters to promote the vote and trying to get their peers to actually listen to the issues and become informed ahead the election.
But much like the candidates on the campaign trail, the two quickly discovered how hard it is to win the youth vote.
“It hasn’t been very good,” said Nederend of student response to the campaign. “We’ve had posters put up over our posters, so it’s hard, and I can see why the candidates struggle with it. You have to have some respect for them.”
It doesn’t help that the Easter weekend has cut into their planning time, and that student elections are the week after the Student Vote, creating come confusion among the student body over what the vote is really for.
Nederend, Colby and Cotter have also scheduled an all-candidates meeting for Apr. 26 in the schools library at 10:45, and have invited the four leaders of the parties in their Kitchener-Conestoga riding to come and have an open forum for students and teachers and to discuss their platforms.
For Cotter, he hopes more students will take an interest in the election and come and listen to what the leaders have to say.
“This is something we talk about in civics class, one-in-three young people vote when they’re eligible, and part of the problem is they’re just not in the habit of voting and don’t see the importance. Somehow we have to get the message out.”
He also wants to stress that student votes can make a difference – he estimates that about 10 per cent of the 1,100 students at EDSS are eligible to vote on May 2.
According to the Student Vote organization, in the 2008 federal election 4,000 schools and half a million students participated across Canada. The Conservative Party captured 102 seats, the NDP 67, the Liberals 51, the Green Party 41, and the Bloc 33.
Compare that to the real election results which saw the Conservatives capture 143 seats, 77 for the Liberals, 49 for the Bloc, 37 for the NDP and none for the Green Party, and it’s clear that the student vote can potentially have an impact on the overall election.
At EDSS the results were overwhelmingly in favour of Harold Albrecht in 2008, and in the Kitchener-Conestoga riding as a whole the Green Party edged out the Conservatives by just seven votes – 799 to 792.
“That is a powerful symbol to show students that if they actually voted our government could look very different,” said Cotter. “Their vote can have a voice.”