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Stefani Zhu, a new Canadian, has struggled to decide whether to vote in Election 2008

Decision to vote a struggle for new citizen

By Rebecca teBrake Oct. 14 will be the first time Stefani Zhu can vote as a Canadian citizen, but as…

By Rebecca teBrake

Oct. 14 will be the first time Stefani Zhu can vote as a Canadian citizen, but as she heads to the ballot box, China is on her mind.Stefani Zhu, a new Canadian, has struggled to decide whether to vote in Election 2008

Zhu, 22, moved to Vancouver from China with her father six years ago and attends classes at UBC and Langara College. She received her citizenship in January, making her one of the newest potential voters in Canada. The election is a catalyst for thinking about how citizenship and politics relate to her life.

“I decided to vote for sure,” said Zhu. “I am going to vote Liberal.”

Zhu’s choice is driven by an issue that hits close to home – Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s absence from the Beijing Olympics. Zhu said Harper’s action demonstrated a lack of respect for the Chinese community.

Zhu’s decision to vote came after a month of tortured indecision about whether to vote at all.

“If I decided to be a Canadian, then I should vote. That’s my responsibility,” said Zhu.

In reality, the decision to vote wasn’t that simple.

The odds may be stacked against Zhu. Immigrants arriving after 1991 are 30 per cent less likely to vote than other immigrants according to Statistics Canada’s 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey. The same data shows the participation rates for Chinese voters aged 18 to 25 is only 37 per cent, compared to 74 per cent in 45 to 54 year-olds. Additionally, people reporting a higher sense of belonging to Canada — a sense that Zhu is just starting to develop — tended to report higher voting rates.

Political calculations

At the outset of the campaign Zhu resolved to make a decision on whether or not to go to the ballot box based on how informed she felt on election day.

Lack of political information is one of the top barriers Zhu faces as a new voter.

“I don’t just randomly make a decision,” said Zhu. “I don’t think that is really responsible. You have to learn about [politicians], know what they are doing and what they are going to do for you, then you can vote.”

“I don’t know where I heard about this but people were saying that the promises they were making are sometimes bullshit,” said Zhu.

“I was planning to vote. Now that I don’t even have time to do my homework, the election comes second,” she explained.

Zhu plans to vote Liberal in 2008 in reaction to Stephen Harper's absence at the Beijing Olympics.

That’s when Zhu turned to her friends for information and advice and learned about the issues that were important for her—a process that changed her political calculations.

This process is a familiar one for many young or new Canadians. UBC political science professor Fred Cutler says that while many older Canadians have a strong sense of duty to vote and will do so no matter what, young people and new Canadians are motivated more strongly by factors such as interest, compelling leaders, or an issue that personally affects them.

Zhu says she doesn’t have the time to do further research and will trust her friends’ judgment even though she would like to have more facts to inform her vote.

Zhu’s decision during this election is driven mostly by her Chinese identity, but she expects the balance to shift now that she is a Canadian citizen.

“It is like a big change for us,” said Zhu. “You belong to another country and you start caring about them and starting to learn new information about them.

On Oct. 14 Zhu will head to the polls with a tempered enthusiasm to “be a part of the country” that she has been living in for six years.

Check back after the election to read about Stefani’s experience at the ballot box.