How students are being disenfranchised

Electoral rules fail to realize that students hold a dual citizenship within Canada

Electoral districts are a tricky thing for any first-time voter to navigate, especially so if that new voter has recently moved ridings, as is the case for many university students in Canada.

New Hampshire is attempting to push legislation through that would disenfranchise university students in an electoral district unless they were a resident before enrolling in university.

Currently, in Canadian federal elections, citizens vote in the district where their permanent address is located, and students who move away from home have the option to cast their ballot in their school’s riding if they can prove residency.

But provincial election rules vary across the country. The Ontario Election Act, for example, defines residency — and therefore voting eligibility — as “the place where your family resides … until you move elsewhere with the intention of making that change permanent.” Technically, any student in Ontario who does not intend to permanently move to their university’s riding would be ineligible.

On the other hand, B.C. students can “register and vote in either the riding where [they] reside while going to school, or in the riding [they] usually live in when you’re not at school.” And residents studying out-of-province can request a mail-in ballot.

But, even with these rules in place there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of clarity or enforcement when it comes to registering to vote.

Take me, for example. My first election was May 2005’s B.C. provincial election, where I exercised my right to vote. Four months later, I began my undergraduate degree in Nova Scotia and that January participated in the 2006 federal election and had the choice to vote in my new riding or my old one. In the 2008 federal election, students in my riding were turned away at some polling stations because their permanent address was in another province and were therefore ineligible to vote, contrary to Canada’s Elections Act.

In a recent interview with Maclean’s On Campus, Danielle Smith, leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance Party, explained how she would make it easier for students to vote on their campuses, saying fixed election dates are the first step.

“Once you’ve got fixed election dates, I see no reason why you wouldn’t be able to have polling stations on campuses to be able to allow for kids who are living in residence to be able to vote in the election,” she said. “We seem to have no problem setting up polling stations in other facilities where we have temporary residence, like prisons for instance.”

Smith, for one, isn’t surprised that current Conservative governments, in both Alberta and at the federal level, haven’t moved on something like this.

“I think it is probably no secret that a lot of university students tend to be more progressive in their attitudes, and they may tend to vote NDP or Liberal, or on the left side of the spectrum,” she said. “And when you have a conservative government, they see no reason to find a way to facilitate the vote.”

This logic seems to be fuelling the New Hampshire legislation, as well. An editorial that appeared in the Tufts University student newspaper on Feb. 7 calls out the bill for similar reasons.

“The Daily objects to the proposal, which was introduced by State Rep. Gregory Sorg, on several dimensions, not least that it may be a transparent attempt by Republican lawmakers to disenfranchise a liberal-leaning bloc of voters in the months leading up to the presidential election,” the editorial reads.

The paper backs up their claim with a statement made by Sorg himself: “Even if [college students] voted the way that I wanted them to, I would not want them to be voting because they would cancel out the votes of the residents of the town who have a stake in the future.”

What Sorg, and others like him, are neglecting to admit — or perhaps blatantly ignoring — is that the goal of any election is for the people to have a say in the governments that take their tax dollars and provide them with basic services, including infrastructure, emergency care, and in some ways, post-secondary education.

If I pay income tax in British Columbia from a summer job, but property tax in Nova Scotia from rent on my student apartment, I’m drawing goods and services and giving back within two systems. To further illustrate this point, I paid sales tax on my groceries and textbooks in Nova Scotia, but interest on my student loans in British Columbia. I also draw services from both provinces in the form of roads, health care, water and basic municipal services.

What any of these proposals fail to realize is that students are essentially citizens in two places at once and shouldn’t be disenfranchised in an election because they’re attending school, unless they hold stakes in two ridings in the same election. Dual citizenship between Canada and the U.S. is a good analogy of this. People who hold dual citizenship can vote in either country, both countries or not at all. They have a stake in both countries, give and take of services in both countries, and are therefore allowed to vote in both countries. Why are student populations any different?

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