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Four Heartening Hints Young Voters Are Paying Attention

A crucial election on the horizon, grassroots organizers get experimental.

By Tom Sandborn 8 Oct 2015 |

Tom Sandborn has covered union movement and health policy stories for The Tyee for over a decade. He currently provides one column of opinion and analysis a month and welcomes your feedback and suggestions at

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Photo: Creative Publics Instagram.

Tara Mahoney wants you to get out and vote this federal election. The Simon Fraser grad student, former Calgarian and co-creator of youth activist group Gen Why Media is part of a project called Creative Publics, and one of the organizers behind the public art-making events that she and a large, enthusiastic group of volunteers have been staging across the Lower Mainland recently.

Operating from a sleekly retro-look silver trailer/art-mobile, the Tin Can Studio, Mahoney and her accomplices in activism invite members of the public to create collages and other art works inspired by the federal election. Their goal? To get out the vote in what many observers are calling one of Canada's most crucial elections ever.

"The current political system is not speaking effectively to issues important to young people, like climate change and tuition hikes," Mahoney said. Her project uses art to start a discussion. "Along the way, we provide information about how to register to vote."

The last art-making event took place at Victory Square in Vancouver's hardscrabble Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood that has not seen high levels of voter turnout in the past. Nicole Armos, a 23-year-old student and project volunteer, said the positive project aims to fight apathy. "The current system normalizes lack of accountability for politicians, and people don't see the impact of their votes."

That lack of accountability can turn young voters off. As the rabble-rousers behind the group "Shit Harper Did" have pointed out, the Conservative party or its members have been busted for breaking election rules in each of the last three federal votes. To highlight the issue, the group had young voters visit Conservative campaign offices to offer candidates a "promise ring," and ask them to pledge not to cheat. The results were filmed, and hilarious. Released yesterday, the footage has already been viewed over 40,000 times.

Will such efforts inspire young people to flood the ballot boxes? If so, it would be about time. Canada, like many formally democratic western states, has seen voter participation diminish since the middle of the last century. According to Elections Canada, nearly 80 per cent of eligible voters made it to polls in the 1963 federal elections. In 2011, that figure fell to 61 per cent, and only 38.8 per cent of potential voters between 19 and 24 voted.

To Caleb Behn, a young aboriginal lawyer and the central figure of the brilliant new documentary film Fractured Land, get out the vote initiatives are important. But, Behn cautioned, "mainstream politics are at best slow moving." Even with increasing talk of strategic voting this election (more on that later), he is wary.

"We face a steadily creeping catastrophe here," Behn said. "The political feedback loop isn't working. The new dynamism created by projects like Gen Why may have some impact. I hope so. If we don't get it right in this election, my generation may have to turn to different forms of action."

Bring a buddy

Mahoney and Armos aren't alone in wanting to bring out new voters this election. From large groups like the Canadian Labour Congress, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Council of Canadians, to smaller operations like Mahoney's Creative Publics and quirky experiments in web activism like the Vancouver Island-based Voting Buddies campaign, which encourages get-out-the-vote partnerships on social media, vote-promoting projects are creating some optimism that Canada's long slide into voter apathy may end this fall. As Erin Gray, a young organizer behind Voting Buddies said, "We want to empower everyone to vote."

In addition to general get-out-the-vote campaigns, one notable feature of 2015's federal election has been the emergence of sophisticated projects designed to promote strategic voting to defeat the current government. These schemes, most prominently advanced by Leadnow's Vote Together drives in 72 targeted ridings, identify on a riding-by-riding basis the opposition candidate most likely to defeat the Conservative in that riding and organize voters who otherwise might vote for one of several opposition parties to concentrate their support on one. This approach, while controversial even among fierce opponents of the Harper regime, seems to be gaining both prominence and influence this year.

They're also largely youth-driven. Rachel Tetrault, a young former school board settlement worker, is the key organizer for Vote Together's efforts in the newly created Vancouver Granville riding. She said that her group had enrolled nearly 4,000 voters in the riding, who have committed to confer in the last days before the election and select the opposition candidate they believe will defeat the Conservatives and vote en masse for that contender. Across Canada, according to the Vote Together website on Oct. 1, about 75,000 voters have made a similar commitment, most of them in the top 12 ridings identified by Vote Together as offering the best chance for strategic voting to succeed.

Leadnow has clearly signalled its intention to remain active after this election and to promote a new electoral system to replace Canada's current first-past-the-post voting, a system that group and other critics see as distorting the results of elections; the example of the 2011 election, which gave the Harper government a commanding majority in Parliament with only 39 per cent of the popular vote, is often cited by critics.

Clearly, attaining a major reform in how Canadians elect governments will require not only mobilizing more young voters and first nations members, people living in poverty and other previously marginalized groups. (And that kind of mobilization will be harder this election due to some features of the Conservative's 2014 electoral changes.) It will also require mobilizing more voters across many age and class boundaries.

With that in mind, it's heartening to see get-out-the-vote efforts in full force this election -- a reason to hope in an election marred by ample fear and cynicism.  [Tyee]

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