How to mobilize voters? Throw everything at them and see what sticks

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Harper's election call may have been quiet, but some creative activist organizations have some very loud campaigns to drive voters to the polls. They're turning to the Internet, the media and to the streets to combat Canada's slagging voter turnout.

In the 2011 federal election, Canada had 61.1 per cent voter turnout, which was up from 58.8 per cent in 2008, but well below percentages in the high 70s in the 1960s.

Some people, like Green Party leader Elizabeth May, think our first-past-the-post electoral system may be to blame for voter apathy, especially when you consider that the current Conservative government has a "majority" government with only 39 per cent of the vote.

Election reform has appeared on the radar as an election issue, whereas others turn to strategic voting to work within the first-past-the-post system.

Strategic voting can only occur in elections with more than one candidate -- it's when you vote for your second or third choice candidate in order to prevent an undesirable candidate from winning.

LeadNow, an online organization with a focus on democracy, has an interesting initiative for the 2015 federal election called Vote Together. It helps candidates in swing ridings choose a candidate to support to defeat the Conservative candidate.

"We're running focus campaigns in 12 swing ridings and we have field teams that are canvassing more than three times a week to build a block of voters with their neighbours who vote together to defeat the Conservatives," said Amara Possian, election campaign manager with LeadNow.

The finished website will give potential voters strategies based on where they live.

"In a few days we're going to be launching an election website where you can put in your postal code and it will tell you the type of riding you live in -- whether it's a safe conservative or non-conservative riding or whether it's a swing riding," said Possian. "It'll give you historical results from 2006, 2008 and 2011 on your riding so you can see trends over time. It will also share where parties stand on the issues."

Possian says this campaign is a way of working within the "broken" first-past-the-post system.

"In the last federal election most people voted for a change in government but their votes were split across party lines and the Harper conservatives got 100 per cent of the power in Parliament with just 39 per cent of the vote," said Possian.

She said it was vote-splitting that "twisted a minority of votes into a majority of seats." This election, her campaign is targeting those ridings.

"There are just 72 ridings where, if people who want change vote together, we can decide whether Harper wins or loses," she said. 

Dylan Penner, a democracy campaigner with the Council of Canadians, says his organization is taking a more traditional approach to voter mobilization -- rather than encouraging people to vote strategically, they're knocking on doors to convince people just to get to the polls. 

"Really the most effective and reliable way to engage voters and to increase voter turnout is to meet with people directly and talk to people face to face," he said.

He says non-governmental organizations like his now have added responsibility to encourage people to vote after changes in the Fair Elections Act stripped Elections Canada of its power to promote voter turnout.

Penner said there were 9.4 million eligible Canadians who didn't vote last federal election. Among those 18 to 24, two thirds did not cast a ballot.

"Particularly for young people on campus they're moving a lot so there are already challenges with ID there -- even more challenging now with the restrictions under the new Fair Elections Act," Penner said.

On top of access barriers, Penner says young Canadians often face motivational barriers to voting because party positions do not reflect their values and priorities.

According to research from the Broadbent institute, young people often hold more progressive views than more mature voters.

"It's become almost common sense that mobilizing youth to vote in this country could radically change the complexion of our politics," said Jonathan Sas, director of research with the Broadbent institute. 

Sas says that perhaps parties ought to tune into the issues young people care about -- stable jobs, fair wages, social justice and climate justice.

If youth voters care about the environment then perhaps Greenpeace Canada's voter mobilization strategies will get some traction.

Greenpeace Canada is beginning their election efforts by reminding people about the Harper government's record when it comes to the environment. They started with an op-ed on the tar sands in the Montreal Gazette on Tuesday.

Greenpeace Canada also plans to mobilize people to confront candidates when they knock on doors to ask them about their stance on environmental issues.

Keith Stewart, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, says candidates should say "yes" to moving rapidly towards renewable energy and restoring and strengthening climate laws and "no" to further tar sands expansion and arctic drilling to get his vote.

Stewart says his organization is also launching a website where voters can tell Greenpeace what their candidate said about their environmental stance.

"If a candidate comes and knocks on your door and they say 'yeah I support this,' you can put that up on the website and view comments form other people," Stewart said.

He said it's a way to make politicians realize their constituents care about environmental issues as well as to make parties come up with stronger positions on climate change.

In addition, Greenpeace Canada will provide voters with signs they can place on their lawns or bring with them to all-candidate meetings that voice their environmental concerns.

You can read up on new ridings and changes to voter registration rules here.

To find out which riding you are in, click here.

Click here for tips on how to find out more about your candidate.

Megan Devlin is rabble's news intern for 2015. She hails from Toronto, but she's starting her Masters in Journalism in Vancouver. She got her start in journalism working at the Western Gazette where she was a news editor for volume 107 and online associate editor for volume 108.

Correction: This article originally stated that 18 to 24 year olds made up the majority of the non-voting population. In fact, a majority of 18-24 year olds did not vote.

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