Reevely: Carleton's residence council pushes students to vote

RACISTS VOTE, say posters going up across Carleton University, sponsored by the group that represents students in residence. SEXISTS VOTE. HOMOPHOBES VOTE. You should vote, the posters tell students, if only to cancel out the votes of people you disagree with.

“We have a membership of over 3,500 students and numerous students are voting for the first time in residence,” said Graham Pedregosa, the president of the Rideau River Residence Association. “We want to make sure that students are informed and want to vote, especially as school is just beginning.”

Whether racists and sexists and homophobes are especially determined ballot-casters, I don’t know. But Elections Canada’s numbers show plainly that young people aren’t. Only 39 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in the last federal election in 2011, which was pretty typical. Canadians aged 65 to 74 were twice as likely to vote.

The disparity is huge.

Urging Carleton students to vote isn’t new for the association, which last year hosted a mayoral debate (Jim Watson was the president of RRRA in his youth) and educated young people who continue to exist campus about a quirk of Ontario law on city elections that let them vote both in Ottawa and in their home cities. But these posters? They’re pretty stark.

After all, softer sells haven’t worked. Smashing the message into people’s faces is worth a try.

To devise the campaign, the association worked with Key Gordon, a marketing agency that focuses on tricky-to-sell ideas with a leftish bent: they’ve worked for Doctors Without Borders, green-energy companies and lobby groups, the Shaw Festival and, yes, the Ontario Liberal Party. The result is “zingy,” as Pedregosa puts it.

“This kind of campaign isn’t just a cookie-cutter get-out-the-vote campaign,” he said. It takes youth cynicism (and the laziness that from time to time hides in the back of it) and turns it around. You can be disaffected, disenchanted, disinterested — but people whose views you might find foul aren’t, so if you wish to make a difference at all, go and cast a ballot.

Key Gordon didn’t charge, so the residence council is just on the hook for about $250 in printing costs, he said. The posters are going up on every floor in residence, and a little less densely all over the place Carleton’s campus.

One disappointment for Pedregosa is that Elections Canada isn’t (yet) joining the residence association’s effort.

The agency tries to make it easier for people from groups that steadily don’t vote to cast ballots. Besides advertising, this election Elections Canada is experimenting with pop-up offices on campuses, in community centres and at aboriginal friendship centres. Rather than forcing people with questions or who have to jump through some hoops to find Elections Canada just to get started, Elections Canada hopes to leap out in front of them, offering to help.

Many students will be eligible to vote for the first time. Others will have moved. Getting on a voters’ list isn’t exactly difficult but it is one more thing to figure out. Where’s your permanent address? Where do you go to tell Elections Canada about it? How do you prove you’re eligible? Did you just move apartments and don’t have all your documents updated? You might not even know what you don’t know. An office staffed by people specially attuned to your needs can help.

But because it’s a pilot project this time, there are just a handful of these places across the country. Ottawa has two, both of them at the University of Ottawa. There isn’t one at Carleton, Algonquin College or La Cité, nor any in Gatineau.

Elections Canada focused on the largest schools across the country (U of O has about 42,000 students, which is 15,000 more than Carleton), and the mundane need for proper office space was a factor, too, said spokesman José Deschênes. Nearly all of Quebec’s offices are in Montreal, with one single exception in Quebec City.

The Carleton residence council has some space it would donate if Elections Canada wants it and they’re talking about the possibilities, Pedregosa said, but nothing’s settled and the clock is ticking.

Not a whole lot has helped boost the youth vote in recent elections. Maybe this combo, of pushy messages from their own peers and practical help from Elections Canada, will be it.

[email protected]