Students learn the value of the vote

Students at Aurora High School in York Region voted in mock elections as part of a province-wide program to encourage youth to get interested in the political process. (STU_VOTEEDIT)

Phoebe Burke steps up to a row of voting booths, marks her ballot, folds it carefully and then places it in the white box marked with an ‘X’ on the front.

She has just voted in an election; however, she is only 17 and she can’t legally vote. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have important views about what she expects from politicians.

“They need to be able to get to a level of understanding with the people who are voting and not just saying ‘This is what I’m about,’” Burke said. “Politicians need to be able to go and talk to people and ask what they think.”

Her marking a ballot is part of a program run by Student Vote, a non-partisan organization, to get youth involved in the political process.

In schools across the province this week, students have voted for candidates in a mock election. Prior to voting day, they learned about the different candidates in their local ridings and the major issues. The results will be announced on Oct. 25.

For Burke, politicians need to change their attitudes towards youth by talking with them rather than at them about issues and policies.

At this voting booth at Aurora High School, north of Toronto, Connor Malbeuf, a Grade 9 student, handed out ballots; he said interest among students varied.

“I realize a lot of people don’t know who is running and a lot of people don’t care,” he said, “but I guess it gives a chance to the people that do care to have a say in our government and environment. A lot of people are picking based on the best first or last name.”

Katie Reidel, spokesperson for Student Vote, says the program has generated a lot of interest since it ran its first elections in 2003.

“We always expect a decent turnout because we have such engaged teachers in Ontario that we’ve worked with for five elections,” Reidel said. “We’re pleased that we have 1500 schools registered in 255 municipalities across the province and they represent all 72 school wards.”

“The kids get into it and I know teachers have said that it’s a really excellent process for them because they’re picking up information about municipal elections and government.”

According to Rhiannon Kyle, 14, a student council member who organized the event, this will help make better citizens in the future.

“It’s really important for making students more proactive citizens,” Kyle said. “We go to high school to learn and something we need to know is how to be good citizens and one skill we need to learn is how to vote.”

While disinterest in politics isn’t exclusively a youth problem, students such as Kyle, feel politicians need to make the first step by reaching out and speaking to them.

“I think students need to feel more valued in the government system,” she said. “People need to go out of their way to ask students what they think needs to happen. If people think they’re being heard, they’ll be more interested and proactive about the whole political system.”