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LOUTFI AND BEEBE: In this federal election, help build democracy from the ground up

Voting makes a difference. Don’t forfeit your right to make a choice. —
"Political candidates often limit their engagement efforts only to their key base of supporters, rather than trying to expand democratic engagement." — - 123RF Stock Photo

It is clear the top-down approach isn’t good enough, as evidenced by continued low voter turnout in some communities.

By Caro Loutfi and John Beebe 

'On Oct. 21, Canadians will choose our next federal government. We are expected to show up, mark our paper ballots and place them in the ballot box. In doing so, we decide who will govern and represent us for the next term. It is a ritual at the heart of a vibrant democracy.

In Canada today, however, many communities remain under-represented at the ballot box. In the last federal election, more than eight million eligible Canadians did not vote. For our democracy to be truly reflective of its citizens and responsive to the diverse realities of Canadians today, we need everyone to participate. Democracy is a project that is never finished, and voter engagement will always be central in that effort.

It is clear the top-down approach isn’t good enough, as evidenced by continued low voter turnout in some communities. The partisan engagement efforts of political parties can sometimes alienate first-time voters. In fact, political candidates often limit their engagement efforts only to their key base of supporters, rather than trying to expand democratic engagement.

In comparison, local organizations are the anchors in their communities whose engagement efforts can be wholeheartedly inclusive, unhindered by partisan pressures. Non-profits have unique relationships of trust with community members on the margins of society. These relationships are key to empowering these priority communities to engage with democracy.

Non-profits have unique relationships of trust with community members on the margins of society. These relationships are key to empowering these priority communities to engage with democracy.

This unique position means non-profits are best placed to demystify the voting process for these communities in Canada through active outreach, engagement and education, to increase voter turnout.

This September, The Democratic Engagement Exchange and Apathy is Boring are launching the Canadian Vote Coalition , the country’s largest non-partisan voter engagement campaign. A network of non-profit organizations and local leaders from coast to coast to coast will come together this election to break down barriers with the aim of increasing voter engagement for those whose voices have been missing.

When democracy thrives, the voices of all Canadians are part of our democratic conversation. The results are policies and programs that include the aspirations of young people, new Canadians, and people who have been marginalized by the system.

Knowing that simply asking someone to vote, if that ask is sincere, increases their likelihood of doing so by up to 10 per cent, Apathy is Boring prioritizes face-to-face engagement by going to where youth are, bringing them information and asking them to vote. Whether through outreach at concerts, festivals and community spaces or through the distribution of 500 meals, along with a democracy menu, to encourage political engagement around the dinner table, thousands of youth will be directly reached by their peers.

The Democratic Engagement Exchange provides training and a free toolkit for organizations to run Vote Pop-Ups, simulated polling stations that walk people through the voting process. More than 1,000 Vote Pop-Ups are planned across the country leading up to the federal election. The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations has also trained student leaders to use Vote Pop-Ups as the main outreach tool for their campus voter engagement campaigns.

These approaches work. The Dartmouth Community Food Centre is one organization that identified the need to reach marginalized groups, and  took action. During a 2016 municipal byelection in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, two polling stations registered a voter turn-out of  zero. In response, during the 2016 Nova Scotia general election, The Dartmouth Community Food Centre used Vote Pop-Ups and selfie stations outside of polling stations, among other creative outreach efforts to rally their community. Overall voter turnout tripled in the 2016 general election.

We know local efforts like this have an impact, but until now, these efforts have been ad-hoc and sporadic. This election, a unified national effort has the power to unlock the influence of community organizations and local leaders.

The Canadian Vote Coalition , made up of organizations and local leaders, is already 600-strong, with champion organizations including Operation Black Vote, Canadian Muslim Vote, Samara Centre for Democracy and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), among others. We invite Canadians to join and initiate voter engagement activations in their communities. Starting earlier this week, Democracy Week, and culminating on Sept 15, which is the International Day of Democracy, those who have signed on will be hosting events across the country to engage their communities.

Then, throughout the election period, non-profits will play a critical role in demystifying the voting process, and in making sure that the concerns and hopes of people in their communities are heard.

Caro Loutfi is the Executive Director of Apathy is Boring, a youth-led, non-partisan, charitable organization that educates Canadian youth about democracy. John Beebe leads The Democratic Engagement Exchange at the Faculty of Arts at Ryerson University.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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