Feature

Student Vote: Making Democracy a Habit

Mandi Hardy

June 2, 1997, was a memorable day for me. It was the date of Canada’s 36th general federal election and it was the first time I had ever voted. I haven’t missed an election since, although my enthusiasm is not reflective of most voters. In the last provincial election, Ontario hit a record low for voter  turnout, with only 49.2 percent of voters visiting the polls. Unlike my 18-year-old self, youth are even less likely to exercise  their democratic right than older voters. In the last federal election,  Elections  Canada  estimates  that only 38.8 percent of voters ages 18 to 24 cast a ballot, while the overall voter turnout was 61.1 percent. In fact, the Canadian Election Study for the years 1965 to 2000 shows a steady decline in the estimated voter  turnout for eligible voters ages 18 to 24 since 1993. This has been attributed to a number of factors, including not knowing where or when to vote and being too busy. But in the words of Ilona Dougherty of Apathy is Boring (a group that uses art and technology to educate Canadian youth about democracy), many youth don’t vote because “we don’t ask them to.” Student Vote aims to change this trend by  asking young  Canadians to  vote well before their eighteenth birthday in the hope that voting becomes a habit. I wanted to run Student Vote in my classroom to develop and foster the kind of excitement I felt as a first-time voter.

What is This Student Vote You Speak Of

Student Vote is a non-partisan, national organization that  runs  parallel elections coinciding with official elections taking  place municipally,    provincially    and    federally. Participating schools are supplied with all the necessary materials to inform  students about the issues and the tools they need to run their very own election, allowing them to consider and vote for the same candidates as the adults in the school’s electoral district. By implementing Student Vote in your school, you will have the opportunity to model civic engagement, foster a passion for democracy, and learn more about politics, all while meeting many  curriculum  expectations. In my class, students were able to compare Canada’s current political issues to those at the dawn of Confederation, offering a current context for what they were learning about the history of politics in Canada. As an added bonus, running Student Vote is a lot of fun and is a great way to engage twenty-first-century learners in an authentic and meaningful way.

Politics Confuse Me So How Will My Students Understand

Elections and politics can seem like overwhelming topics that are out of reach for our students, and at times, even for  ourselves. Student Vote supplies a wide variety of curriculum-linked resources for elementary and secondary students in both French and English. In addition, by employing an inquiry-based approach, teachers can facilitate as students identify and  explore questions about candidates, political parties, and the electoral system. Teachers can learn with their students about the various candidates and the values and ideals they stand for. There is no need to be an expert on politics; instead, teachers become co-learners alongside their students.

Politics In The Classroom? Won't I Get In Trouble For That?

Actually, the opposite is true. The Ontario College  of  Teachers  (OCT)  Standards  of Professional Practice outline the need to respect and honour democracy and facilitate the development of students as contributing citizens in Canadian society. Student Vote allows us to do just that. Because Student Vote is non-partisan, it is easy to maintain an open and fair approach while fostering the importance of civic engagement and responsibility. Teachers do not impose their personal political views on students, and this in no way impedes the delivery of an engaging Student Vote parallel election.

I'm Already Too Busy. I Don't Have Time For Something Else 

Running  a  Student  Vote  parallel  election can take up as much or as little time as you want. Activities can range from simply creating candidate profiles, to a more involved approach, such as hosting an all-candidates debate. The possibilities are endless. Student Vote can be integrated into many different subject areas: data management, social studies, visual art, drama, and all  four strands of language. Students in my class took on the task of informing themselves about the candidates and the issues  and prepared a presentation for other classes in the school.

It was important to them that other students be well informed so they could make the best decision on election day. After the vote, students used their data management skills to organize the primary data and display it appropriately in a graph. We then discussed the results and compared them to the results of the official election, hypothesizing reasons for any differences. Students recognize that this is authentic learning and will be encouraged by what they see outside of school as well: election signs popping up  on lawns, stories about the election on the news, and campaign ads on television. With politicians in Canada increasingly employing negative attack ads, Student Vote may even offer an opportunity to address issues of bullying. In a colleague’s grade 5 classroom, students responded to the recent attack ads against Justin Trudeau, saying that it was an example of cyberbullying. These students wrote  letters to the prime minister, sharing their thoughts. One student wrote, “You know there are better strategies, Mr. Prime Minister. You could talk to us about all the great things you want to  do  for  the  country  instead.”  Students have a different perspective on politics than adults, who are often jaded. These kids have a lot to offer to our political arena, even if they can’t officially vote yet.

Student Vote will  send you  everything you will need, including ballot boxes, voting screens, ballots, electoral district maps, campaign  posters, election  operations  manual and activities and lesson plans. This is one of the best parts of participating in Student Vote, having all the materials you need sent directly  to  you.  Who  doesn’t  like  getting packages in the mail?

What Does Student Vote Actually Look Like On Election Day?

Voting in  the  Student Vote election usually takes place a few days before the official election and can be tailored to meet the needs of your school. Polling stations can be set up in one location, or can be mobile, travelling from class to class. Voting times can be scheduled throughout the day, during class time or at lunch or recess. Students will take on the roles of deputy returning officer and poll clerk and will run the polling stations just as the official polling stations are run. The Student Vote results are submitted and kept confidential until official election results are released on election night and reported in the media. The day of the official election is always very exciting, as students are eager to see how their chosen candidate fared. There is always much discussion about whether or not the adults made wise choices the day after the results are revealed. Student Vote invests students in  the  electoral  process and  makes them more likely to vote once they’ve turned 18.

The Referendum On Mixed Member Proportional Representation: A Student Vote Success Story 

In October of 2007, Ontario voters rejected a proposal for electoral reform in a referendum. A new system, mixed member proportional representation, was proposed as a replacement for our current first-past-the-post system. There was a lot of confusion among voters about the referendum; many did not even know that a referendum was taking place. In the words of then NDP Leader Howard Hampton, “The referendum had no chance. All across the province, people didn’t know what the issue was. They didn’t know what mixe membe proportionarepresentation stood for.” All across the province, except in the classrooms and homes of many students who were participating in Student Vote. Students in my class knew the difference between the two systems, knew why they thought one was more fair, or more practical, and they went home and explained it to their parents. I remember one student in particular, his eyes bright  with  enthusiasm,  telling  me  about how he’d taught his dad all about the referendum. How would things have turned out if all the students in the province had had the same knowledge to share with their families? Imagine the sense of  value and self-worth that these students would have had, knowing that they understood adult issues as well as the adults. One day, one of our students will be premier or prime minister, and we’ll want to be sure that she (or he) got the best start possible.

Okay, I'm sold! Now what?

The future holds an upcoming provincial election, and registering with  Student Vote now will ensure that students and staff have the opportunity to  develop a deeper, more meaningful understanding of  politics  and the electoral system. Visit studentvote.ca/on to register your school for the Ontario Provincial Election! Do it now! If you’re a teacher who already runs a Student Vote election, why not encourage a colleague at another school to try it too?

Student vote facts:

  • Teachers  can register  for the next student Vote  at studentvote.ca
  • 471 schools  in Ontario have  already registered  for the student Vote  program  that will  coincide with  the next provincial election
  • In the 2011 provincial election 369,000 Ontario students  took part in student Vote.  1,995 elementary schools  registered  to participate, joining just over half  of all schools in Ontario.
  • An independent evaluation of the student Vote  program  confirmed teachers’  reports  that students  bring their  knowledge and enthusiasm home  to their  families and positively  affect  parental turnout.
  • Student  Vote  is the flagship  program of ciVix,  canada’s leading  civic education  charity,  civix.ca