Huge speakers boom Bob Marley’s Exodus through the open front doors of Driftwood Community Centre. The smell of barbecue chicken wafts heavily over the crisp autumnal air. A children’s jumping castle is getting a fierce workout.
It’s a bright Saturday afternoon at Jane and Finch. And in the middle of this busy street festival, Jamil Jivani is assembling his team of canvassers for a mission. There are people in the neighbourhood’s towers and townhouses who have no intention of voting in the upcoming federal election. Jivani and his team want to change their minds.
Enter Jane and Finch Votes, a non-partisan voter-mobilization initiative started by visiting law professor Jivani as part of his course this semester on community organizing and the law at Osgoode Hall.
The group has set a goal of bringing 300 new voters to the polls, a modest 1 per cent voter increase in York West, one of the city’s have-not ridings, where average annual household income ($62,541) is more than $25,000 less than the city average ($87,038). The unemployment rate (12.9 per cent) is markedly higher than the average (9.3 per cent).
As in many low-income communities, voter turnout is lower than the national average here – 48.1 per cent in the 2011 federal election. By comparison, the relatively affluent ridings of Parkdale-High Park and Toronto-St. Paul’s had turnouts of 68 and 66 per cent respectively.
Third-year law student Kyle Elliott says he signed up for the canvass because he wants a community-based perspective on why people don’t vote. He’s voted ever since he was 18 but admits it’s been a challenge to get people to pledge to cast a ballot. Sometimes people don’t answer the door; others slam the door once voting is mentioned.
Elliott says he’s come up against deep-rooted apathy about the electoral system. “It’s a vicious cycle where people don’t see politicians in their community, so they don’t vote. And politicians don’t see voters coming out in large numbers, so they don’t spend a lot of time here.”
The project’s traditional grassroots approach involves knocking on doors and starting conversations with residents about the electoral system and community needs. Once a pledge is secured, an offer to follow up with the pledger prior to the election is made. The group has even committed to transporting people to the polls if necessary.
Jivani is optimistic. As a Yale University law student, he saw face-to-face voter engagement work effec-tive-ly in low-income communities during the 2012 Obama campaign.
Of course, the Obama campaign had one major advantage our current federal runoff does not: Barack Obama.
Can people be persuaded to vote without a charismatic leader on the ballot?
Jivani says leadership isn’t the only factor that matters. “Getting people to vote is really about getting them to engage in democracy for the first time.”
He believes his law students are some of the best people for the job.
“Everyone who decides to be a lawyer believes to some extent that the system can be effective,” he says. “Lawyers believe that by engaging in the system, we can make it work.”
Personal engagement seems to reso-nate, too, when it comes to breaking through the apathy.
Among those who do vote, marking their X on the ballot was something they were shown early on. That’s something canvasser Michael Thorburn, who’s in his third year at law school, hears constantly at the door. It’s something he can relate to as well.
“Since I was 11 years old, I was going to the polls with my mother. That had a real impact on me,” he says.
Law student Madeline Boyce says her experience in community organizing and her own questions about how the electoral system works piqued her interest in Jane and Finch Votes.
A U.S. citizen, Boyce says her hassle-free experience casting absentee votes in U.S. elections convinces her that there are ways to make voting easier and more accessible.
“There are major language barriers in this community when it comes to voting,” says Boyce. “People have told me they’d vote if someone who spoke English helped them get to the polls.”
Efforts to increase voter turnout aren’t new. Local agencies have made attempts to engage people in the past. But for those who have lived here for many years, while the candidates may have changed, the issues, to some degree, have remained the same. That’s one reason people are skeptical about elections.
Arvind, a long-time resident (he de-clined to give his last name), says his experiences dealing with unre-sponsive government services after his cabinetry business fell apart led him to feel there was no point in voting.
“I asked for help from several government agencies, and no one was able to help me.”
Yet Arvind has signed a pledge to vote for the first time, because he no longer thinks staying away from the polls is going to improve services in the end.
“You start to think that maybe a couple of voices can make a bigger voice,” he says.
Gabriela, who has lived in the community most of her life, says she has voted regularly since becoming eligible.
“I don’t want to be in the same situation forever.”
Citing poverty, education and employment as the top issues in the community, Gabriela says people here can ill afford to be disengaged from politics. “You have to vote if you want to see changes.”
But Jivani says the project is about much more than counting new voters.
He plans to evaluate the project and data collected. He and his students will then tally the key lessons and share them with other communities.
“We’re trying to build capacity in the community and think about this on a long-term basis.”
Our riding was long held by Liberal Judy Sgro. Would increased voter participation change that?
Sources / More info: now-jivani