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Democracy Dial-Up: Is Integrating Technology the Key to Increased Voter Turnout?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

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Written by Jaimee-Lisa Cotter

The University of Guelph campus and community has a long standing history of being a hot bed for political activism. With a recent provincial election, an upcoming municipal election, a current CSA by-election and an impending federal election students and residents of Guelph are getting their fill of policy and personality, specifically when it comes to the mayoral race happening.

Voter turnout has been decreasing steadily for the last several election periods, and the city’s decision to implement online voting polls comes under fire from many people. City clerk Blair spoke in defense of the move, indicating there was the potential for “the technology has come a long way and with it our ability to mitigate risks” he told the city council in a meeting last week, where the online polling stations initiative was voted on and passed seven to four.

For obvious reasons, several councilors were hesitant to vote in favour of the motion: just several years ago in the 2011 federal election, Guelph made it into national news headlines for the infamous Robo-Call scandal.

On the day of the election a series of automated and live phone calls went out to eligible voters in the Guelph riding, claiming that the polling locations had changed. Some residents also reported receiving telephone calls that claimed to be the Liberal Party of Canada, with the exchange over the phone bordering on harassment. Upon further investigation, Elections Canada found that it was highly possible that the calls came from a computer in the Conservative Party headquarters in Guelph.

There is certainly a level of concern when implementing a voting procedure that is not monitored by a human being but as Councillor Jim Furfaro mentioned to council no matter what the medium, there will always be someone who tries to undermine the system of democracy: “There is always going to be attempts at voter fraud” he proceeded to explain to the council, and assured them that as far as he could tell there appears to be numerous safeguards in place to prevent fraudulent voting.

Engagement coordinator for University of Guelph’s off-campus living department Galen Fick expressed that he thinks this is a wonderful push to get more students to participate in the upcoming polls, since travel time and location are often factors in poor student representation in terms of voter turnout. Fick also pointed out that young people are living in an online world these days, citing an Elections Canada report that suggests implementing an online voting system could result in an increase of 67 per cent of the student demographic casting a ballot.

Other councilors and attendees of the meeting would do well to heed Councillor Furfaro’s claim that there will always be attempts at voter suppression and election fraud: preceding the Robo-Call scandal in May, a special ballot polling station was set up on the University of Guelph campus which would allow students writing exams during election time and unable to make it to polling stations in their own municipality the day of the election cast their vote ahead of time.

Moderated by a returning officer from Elections Canada who felt it was important to get the student populations vote, every piece of documentation listed clearly “Elections Canada- Special Ballot”.

This did not stop a member of the Conservative Party interrupting the process and actively engaging in voter suppression by threatening to not let students continue to cast votes. Several students reported the Conservative Party member attempting to steal the ballot box as he felt this was a fraudulent procedure. While the investigation did not result in any charges laid by Elections Canada, it also found that the student vote was authentic, and counted toward the upcoming election.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement following the investigation that the Conservative Party was only concerned with “select details” of the case, and was simply happy that “Canadians of all regions, all walks of life from all backgrounds” were being encouraged to vote.

Michael Ignatieff of the Liberal Party and former head of the NDP Party Jack Layton both expressed concern over voter suppression, and Layton specifically mentioned the importance and obligation that political parties have to engage and encourage young people to participate in democracy.

Online polling for the Guelph municipal election will only be open for early voting, and voters must be registered to gain access to the electronic polling stations. If you are unsure if you have been registered to participate and have your stake in municipal democracy, the city of Guelph website offers an easy voter registration system with full information students must provide to be eligible vote, locations of polling stations and websites redirecting to the platforms of all candidates running for mayor and each ward. 

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