Fort High students had the chance to set an example for local adults on Friday when the school held a mock election to teach students about the electoral process and encourage civic participation among youth.
Voter turnout had been declining steadily in Canada over the last four federal elections since 1988, with just 60.5 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in June, 2004.
Local numbers were even worse, with a woeful 56 percent voter turnout in Thunder Bay-Rainy River.
While factors such as political cynicism and a lack of confidence in the democratic process may play a role in the drop in voter participation, a new study by the Canadian Council on Learning suggests a lack of civics education in schools also may be partly responsible—at least for the poor record among young voters.
“Schools clearly have an important role to play in producing politically knowledgeable and interested young Canadians,” the CCL said in its report, “Falling Voter Turnout: Is It Linked to Diminished Civics Education?” released last Wednesday.
In order to meet that challenge, Fort High registered to participate in “Student Vote”—a national program that provides free materials to schools in order to organize an election for all students to participate in, regardless of their age.
Teacher/librarian Rudy Zeitlhofer organized the event, which included educating students about the different political parties and candidates.
In the days leading up to the vote, students could go into the library and learn more about each party and candidate. Tuesday was dedicated to the Liberals, Wednesday to the Conservatives, Thursday to the NDP, and Friday to the Green and Marijuana parties.
“We presented one party at a time, rather than throw five platforms out there at once. We wanted to avoid information overload,” Zeitlhofer noted.
The materials presented included posters, pamphlets, buttons, and other material provided by the candidates’ campaign offices, as well as newspaper articles.
Students were encouraged to read the material, look for differences among the party platforms, and decide for themselves which was the better plan.
“The information on all the candidates is available, and the students can make up their own mind,” Zeitlhofer said.
Party signs also were put up in the hallways to encourage participation, and a computer in the library was used to put up each party’s website on their appropriate day so students could look for more information.
“You’re looking for students to see the big picture outside of their little world,” he noted.
For example, each party has a different plan for post-secondary education—an issue that could have a direct impact on the future of many high school students.
“It’s not easy to become excited about tuition increases today” when graduation is not for another two or three years, Zeitlhofer acknowledged.
The “Student Vote” package suggests several ways to hold the vote—from passing out ballots in each homeroom class to having a travelling polling station going room-to-room.
Zeitlhofer said they opted to organize it much like a real election, with a stationary polling station where students must come, have their names crossed off the voters’ list, and then take their ballot behind a screen.
“Students have to actually make the effort to vote,” he noted, much like adults who must take time out of their day to participate in the democratic process.
French teacher David Shuh took his Grade 9 class down to the polling station Friday afternoon. Grade 11 students Darcy Jones and Jeremy Caul volunteered to be polling clerks, and drew a line through each student’s name on the list once they had received their ballots.
Students Brittainy Spence and Danielle Gustafson said they enjoyed the chance to vote, and definitely would continue to do so once they turned 18.
Sierra Spicer said students were given some time to discuss election issues in class. Though she said she has no strong political convictions, she was looking forward to being old enough to vote in a real election.
“I just want to vote and have my say,” she said, adding it would be a good idea to lower the voting age to 16.
“If more than 100 students vote, I would consider that to be successful,” Zeitlhofer said Friday before the polls closed.
As it turned out, more than 250 students voted that day.
“There’s a lot more interest than I had anticipated at first,” Zeitlhofer said, noting some students had been coming into the library to research the parties online.
More than 442,000 students from 3,000 schools in every province and territory participated in “Student Vote 2006.”
Across the country, 31.5 percent of students voted Conservative, 23.2 percent voted NDP, 21.9 percent Liberal, and 16.7 percent Green. The rest voted for other parties like the Bloc Quebecois, the Marijuana Party, and the Christian Heritage Party.
At Fort High, 253 students voted, with a near tie between the NDP (79 votes) and the Marijuana Party (78 votes). The Conservatives garnered 39 votes, the Liberals 35, and the Greens 22.