Complexities of student voter turnout

Municipal elections were held across Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta in recent weeks, allowing for student participation in municipal affairs to be examined now that campaigns have been concluded and results have been tabulated.
While some cities experienced increased turnout, it is difficult to determine what role, if any, students played.

In many cases, students simply do not participate in municipal politics. According to Robert Williams, professor emeritus in political science at the University of Waterloo, local elections require more effort from often uninterested voters.

“You don’t have a party label to refer to, every candidate is independent and has his or her own views,” he said.

Zachary Spicer, a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario specializing in municipal politics, outlined why students should make an effort to get out and vote in local elections.

“There are issues with landlords, zoning, bylaw enforcement, stuff like that,” he said. “All of that is entirely local.”

In Winnipeg, Sarah Petz, the news editor of the campus newspaper the Manitoban, cited transit development and crime as municipal issues with a direct effect on students at her school and the University of Winnipeg across town, but she said students still remained inactive during the election. “I think students don’t understand why they should care,” she explained.

In Calgary, University of Calgary Students’ Union vice president external Hardave Birk saw a different situation play out on his campus, with hundreds of students turning out for election-centric events and nearly 1,800 votes cast at the polling station in the student centre on campus.

“Overall the participation was quite high among students,” he said.
In a particularly exciting municipal race that saw newcomer Naheed Nenshi, a University of Calgary alumni and former students’ union president, become mayor, students were among the groups candidates appealed to directly, Birk said. “The city was engaged and here at U of C you could definitely feel the energy; students got out to vote, they got interested.”

The Nenshi campaign, noted for its use of social media to interact with voters, ran buses from student residences to polling stations.

Spicer said candidates need to learn to speak to students if there is any hope of encouraging more engagement from the often tremendous numbers of students in communities surrounding universities and colleges in Canadian cities.

“I think if candidates choose to engage students with a medium they choose to be engaged with, you’ll probably see increased turnout. You have to speak to their issues and also learn how to speak to them,” he said.

Joe Cressy, who was campaign chair for Mike Layton’s successful council bid in Toronto’s Ward 19, suggested making voting easier, possibly through use of online methods for local elections as well as ranked balloting in order to make young people feel their vote is more important and actually go out and cast ballots.

There are other reasons students don’t bother voting on the local level, said Spicer, that local issues like snow and garbage removal seem to pale in comparison to federal-level items like the economy and military.

“Even though students are there for about four years, you kind of feel like you’re visiting,” he added.

Williams echoed the same thoughts. “They might live in the community but they’re not of the community,” he said of student residents.

“They’re totally divorced from the kinds of things the municipality is trying to deal with and for most of them it doesn’t really make much difference.”

Advanced polls were set up and candidates visited campus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, but Petz said that there was still a lack of participation. “It didn’t look incredibly busy, it’s not like there were students lined up to vote or anything,” she said. “I don’t think there was any tremendous effort to get students engaged.”

Since students aren’t, for the most part, perceived as an important voting demographic among candidates, they don’t tend to devote time to reaching out to students during the campaign.

Cressy agreed that while candidates may say they are going after the student vote, the focus of their efforts lies with those who identify as supporters — student or otherwise.

“If you speak to a lot of people outside of the political process, they’ll tell you campaigns need to target students more.” He continued, “When you speak to people within the political process, they’ll say that the nuts and bolts of the campaign is about finding your supporters.”

“If students aren’t vocalizing support then why would you target them?”
Peter Woolstencroft, a candidate for councillor in Waterloo’s municipal race this year and retired political science professor from Wilfrid Laurier University, pointed out that students are often able to vote for the first time in a municipal election like this year’s.

While the first-time voter rate 30 years ago hovered around 40 or 50 per cent, there has been a downward trend. “Now it’s probably closer to 20 or 25 per cent,” he said.

Woolstencroft commented on the potential students hold if they make an effort to participate in the politics of their often temporary communities, based on sheer numbers.

“If you can mobilize otherwise uninvolved people, then you have a good chance of winning an election,” he said.

Student vote numbers


Votes cast at the polling station in the University of Calgary’s student centre


Votes cast at the polling station in Pitman Hall at Ryerson University in Toronto


Number of people who cast ballots in advanced polls in the University of Manitoba’s ward

24, 267

Undergraduate students at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg

—courtesy of respective municipal websites