Safeguarding our democracy is everyone’s responsibility
The pandemic is creating a stress test for Canada’s democracy and the early results are in.
We are hearing misleading claims about voter suppression, genuine concerns about reduced polling locations and lots of questions about how to vote safely and easily.
More troubling is the rise of fringe groups taking their online vitriol to the streets with hate filled protests that sound more like Trump rallies than the civil discourse that has been the hallmark of Canadian democracy. Is this the beginning of a rise of an anti-democratic movement similar to what we have seen around the world? We dare not let that contagion spread and take hold here.
What are the lessons for Canada about how we run our elections and build a healthy and vibrant democracy?
First, the easy part: snap elections should be a minimum of 50 days and not just during a crisis like the pandemic. Because of the short election period, Elections Canada, an independent agency responsible for administering elections, has been forced to make unpopular decisions. As a consequence, this trusted institution has been subjected to misleading claims of voter suppression.
For example, this year, Elections Canada was forced to suspend its innovative “Vote On Campus” program that allowed students to vote at special polling locations. The program would have had to start before most students returned to campus and Elections Canada could not confirm on-campus locations. My university, like many others, would not lease Elections Canada space because of public health restrictions. While students still have many options for voting, this suspension is a setback.
Fortunately, Elections Canada recognizes the value of this program and has committed to continuing it in the future. But if there is another short snap election, Elections Canada will face the same challenges. Even two more weeks would give Elections Canada critical time to meet the needs of students and other voters who face unique barriers to voting, including those in remote Indigenous communities whose voices are vital to our democracy.
Elections Canada hires community outreach officers (CROs) to engage those facing barriers to participation, including students, new Canadians and people living with disabilities. This program should be enhanced with better training and support.
We are fortunate at Ryerson to have a student working as a dedicated CRO. Every post-secondary institution should have one. Without a longer election period, however, CROs will not have the time to establish relationships and engage vulnerable communities.
Safeguarding our democracy is not just up to Elections Canada. We all have a role to play. University and college administrators need to make democratic engagement a core part of their mission. There is lots of talk about civic education in our K-12 education system, but our civic education falls down just as students begin voting for the first time.
At Ryerson, turnout at our on-campus polling location increased 55 per cent in 2019 because student leaders, with the active support of school administrators and Elections Canada, conducted a campus-wide voter outreach program. This should be the norm at every postsecondary school.
Our civil society also needs to step up. Local libraries, community centres and civic organizations have a critical role to play in demystifying the voting process.
We are fortunate that voting in Canada is easy for most people. In 2019, it took an average of seven minutes to vote. The vast majority of Canadians are automatically registered, and if you are not, you can register when you show up at your polling place. We need to reassure first time and infrequent voters that the barriers to voting they fear most don’t exist. Democracy is not just about elections. It involves ongoing outreach and engagement between elections. Universities and colleges must engage students in campus wide conversations about our most challenging problems. Settlement agencies must foster democratic engagement as a core part of their mission. Libraries must create opportunities for neighbours to learn about and discuss issues that matter to them.
If we are going to prevent the rise of anti-democratic forces, both government and the philanthropic sector will need to invest in our democracy and provide the critical resources to sustain and build on these local efforts.