Are ‘rock the student vote’ campaigns worth it?

If university students are already voting, maybe efforts to get them to the polls could be directed elsewhere


As with every vote, student politicians across the country are campaigning to get students out to the polls for the upcoming federal election.

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), for example, launched to provide information on how to vote and political party platforms, along with a blog and links to Twitter feeds for each party.

“The main impetus for the site was to put something out there that had information resources,” CASA director Zachary Dayler told the Canadian University Press.

Individual student unions are also taking it upon themselves to engage their members, such as the University of Alberta Students’ Union (UASU)which is setting up an election page on their main website, and is organizing a forum for candidates in the Edmonton-Strathcona riding.

One student at the University of Saskatchewan suggested using the university’s online social media tool PAWS to solve the so-called student voter apathy problem.

“If we could show that students are voting in large numbers at the U of S, maybe we could secure funding from various levels of government,” Matthew Eldstrom told campus newspaper The Sheaf, who also explained that he’d contact the executive of the University of Saskatchewan Student’s Union, along with several students in the university’s political science and computer science departments to put his plan into action.

And we’ve all heard of the ‘vote mobs’ organized by student leaders at several universities across the country, such as the University of Guelph, where hundreds of students have gathered at party rallies to show they are far from apathetic about the election.

I’m all for making students more aware of issues in the federal election, and no one could argue that getting more young people casting their ballots would be a bad thing. But the problem with these campaigns is that students are arguably more educated and engaged than the general population when it comes to politics, and they may already be flocking to the polls as it is.

The average citizen isn’t gleefully signing up for classes in political science, and they typically aren’t privy to politicians campaigning or holding presentations at their place of work. Students are exposed to these kinds of political engagement regularly (take Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s cross-campus tour last year, for example). They also have political student groups on campus clamouring for their attention that they can easily get involved in.

A 2003 Electoral Insight study headed by McGill professor Elizabeth Gidengil exploring voter participation found that while voter turnout had steadily declined amongst voters born after 1970, when taking education into account “it is a serious misconception to suppose that it is the highly educated young who are failing to turn up at the polls. On the contrary, the more education young people have, the more likely they are to vote.”

The same authors penned an additional paper that further broke up predicted voter turnout by education which looked at voter decline between 1968 and 2000. The study found that voter turnout  amongst youth, age 20, with less education was predicted to be 29 per cent, 43 per cent amongst youth with a medium level of education, and 58 per cent amongst youth with a high level of education.

As Carson has pointed out, though these studies may be dated, voting trends haven’t swayed substantially over the past decade. So it’s very likely that these findings still apply to students eligible to vote on May 2.

What’s worrisome is that the focus on raising student voter turnout may be hurting efforts to engage youth who aren’t in post-secondary education. Jared Wesley, an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba, pointed out that equating student politics with youth politics could depress the voter turnout amongst non-students, considering student movements usually focus on the issue of tuition, and that too often politicians solely campaign on campuses to engage young people.

“Politicians are focused on middle-class families when it’s the lower-class families that are starting out, that don’t have an education that are not likely to vote,” he told the Canadian University Press. “I realize it’s easy to campaign on campus, but it’s not solving the larger issue.”

In a country with one of the highest post secondary education participation rates in the world, it’s easy to focus on students when trying to increase youth voter turnout. Yet let’s not forget that not everyone decides to attend university, and their vote counts just as much as any student’s. It’s their issues that are often overshadowed by the concerns of their peers enrolled in university.

But it’s obviously not the job of student interest groups or universities to address this problem. Their role is to make sure students are informed of the issues in the election affecting them, and they do a pretty good job of it. It’s politicians and policy makers who should be expanding the dialogue on youth issues off campus, and realizing the diverse make-up of the youth populace.


Are ‘rock the student vote’ campaigns worth it?

  1. I, as a student, really, really want to vote.
    I do.
    But it’s so damn hard to vote for someone, when nobody is saying anything to you, about you.

    I watched the debate. I do not remember anything from that debate that was targeted towards students. Not a word. I do, however, remember two things: Jack Layton using the phrase “Hashtag fail” (Oh God.), and Michael Ignatieff telling Mr. Layton, later on in the debate, that “At least we get into office, you will be the opposition forever.” (Oh snap.)

    I do appreciate that healthcare reform, crime, and the economy were front and centre at this debate, and that’s important stuff, but when will they talk about us? The PQ is talking about tuition and other things, in Quebec. I’m at McMaster, in Ontario. Not a word about us. Talk about MY tuition, and a reason for me to stay in Canada and work.

    The only people who have acknowledged any sort of student movements are the media, and John Baird, who is calling Vote Mobs “disconcerting”, according to Rick Mercer.

    Really? Disconcerting? Apparently they DON’T want us to care.

    I can’t choose a platform to commit to, if there is nothing on the platform that tells me to vote for them. The “Vote for me, because everyone else is a poopyhead” method of campaigning is insulting. We ARE educated, we know that a lot of the things you say are bull, as Macleans itself is so nice to point out (check out the Bull Meter section, it’s sadly hilarious).

    I understand that moving the effort elsewhere to getting non-student youth to vote is necessary, but what’s being done on campuses is being organized by US, the students. The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations is just that, a student association. It’s not the parties who are telling us to vote. Look at Baird, this bothers him. Neither the media nor elections Canada has done anything about youth vote, or youth involvement, or even INTEREST in politics. We got media coverage and attention on our own. The effort and attention paid to the vote mobs is because we’re damn loud about it. It’s because we have Youtube. It’s because we’re DOING something, and telling you what WE are going to do. I wish our politicians would do the same.

    I’m still waiting for a leader to comment on it. Or a reporter to ASK them about their stand on it.