Improving Student Access to Voting

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Each year, over 18,000 students fill the lecture theatres, meeting spaces and hallways of MUN, Marine Institute, CNA, Academy Canada, Keyin College and other post-secondary institutions in St. John’s. Here to learn, create and drive solutions to a wide array of challenges, each student also contributes uniquely to our neighbourhoods, our community, and our city.

When I was an undergrad student at MUN, I walked, biked, or took the bus to and from classes, studied in the local coffee shops, and completed work terms in the city. Throughout my time as a student, I fell in love with St. John’s and it is where I have made my home and am raising my family. Each September, students all over the city energize our spaces and experience St. John’s in new and exciting ways. Walk through Churchill Square or the neighbourhood grocery store on a Tuesday evening, and you will meet students who are proud to call St. John’s home. Students walk on city sidewalks, take the bus, drive on city streets, raise their families and work in small businesses, engineering firms, and healthcare facilities (to name just a few ways students interact with our city). Students are also taxpayers.

Every decision - from the design and snow-clearing of our streets to our public transit to our municipal taxation - impacts student life in our city.

So, why do we make it so difficult for students to vote?

Under provincial law, residents must be living in St. John’s for at least thirty days prior to election day in order to be eligible to vote. With the 2017 election date set for September 26th this means that anyone who wants to vote must have active residence in the city no later than the last week of August.

This creates a clear barrier for students from out of town, as many move into on- or off-campus housing in the first week of September. This also impacts students beyond their first year, as many who live and study in St. John’s may go home or travel over the summer, leaving them to find new accommodations for September and therefore ineligible to vote come election day.  

In addition to the date of election, mail-in ballots can create barriers for not only students, but all residents who rent their homes. While mail-in ballots encourage greater inclusion and importantly benefit residents with mobility or accessibility issues, we must also consider ways to improve access to the ballot for residents without fixed long-term addresses.

What can we do?

One option is changing the date of our municipal election to later in the fall. This would allow more students - and other residents who arrive in September - to participate in our election.

Additionally, there are actions we can take to improve student access to voter registration and to the ballot box. In the 2015 federal and provincial elections, on-campus ballot boxes at post-secondary institutions across Canada, successfully increased accessibility and resulted in higher voter engagement by students. Offering a polling station on campuses for municipal elections could increase voter engagement. If not an on-campus ballot box, the city could ensure access to polling stations through dedicated transit on election day.

As part of my campaign, I’ll be encouraging students, and all residents of Ward 4, to register to vote. On-campus information and registration booths during the first weeks of September could improve overall participation. Finally, partnerships with organizations such as Municipalities NL, City of St. John’s, Canadian Federation of Students, MUNSU, and MUN would increase awareness and dialogue around the municipal election.

Why does this matter to me?

As a candidate for Ward 4 City Councilor, I am asking for your support to allow me to represent all Ward 4 residents. MUN, Marine Institute, CNA, Academy Canada, and other institutions have campuses in this Ward, along with on- and off-campus housing for students. I want to ensure that all residents of Ward 4 have access to voting in our municipal election and representation at City Hall. Students live, work, and study in Ward 4, and I want to ensure that they are able to exercise their democratic right in September’s election.

As a graduate of Memorial University’s civil engineering program, I know how important it is to have a city designed with the needs of all residents - including students - in mind. As a resident of Ward 4, I interact with students on a daily basis and recognize that each and every student contributes to making our city what it is.

To build a city that works for all of us, we must ensure that each and every resident has a voice in the democratic process. 

Another advocate for improving students access to voting, is Maggie Burton, a candidate for at-large in the fall election. Read her Letter to the Editor, in The Telegram.