Scores of young Vancouver residents won’t be heading to the polls on November 15th, but it won’t be apathy keeping them away – it will be the law.
To cast a ballot in the upcoming municipal election, voters must be Canadian citizens at least 18 years of age. They must also have lived in Vancouver for at least a month before election day, and been a resident of British Columbia for at least six months. It’s the last requirement that has some young people all fired up.
“Sure, I’ll be able to vote in the next local election, but so what?” said Derek Wong, a first year student at the University of British Columbia. “This is the election that will have the most impact on my time in the city.”
Some 2,174 out-of-province undergraduate students like Wong started at UBC or Simon Fraser University in September.
Every three years, more than 2,000 out-of-province students find themselves without a voice in local politics.
That might not seem like a big number, but in tight races, every ballot counts. In 2005, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan defeated Jim Green by a margin of 3,747 votes.
Derek Wong was born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario. He moved to Vancouver at the end of August to start his Bachelor of Arts degree at UBC.
But for this aspiring political scientist, making the move meant giving up his right to participate in local politics, at least for a little while. Under the city’s current rules, Wong will not meet the residency requirement in time to vote in this year’s municipal election.
“As long as I’m studying at UBC, I’ll spend at least twice as much time in Vancouver as I will back home. Why shouldn’t I have some say in how my new home is run?” said Wong.
He’ll be eligible to vote in the 2011 municipal election, but Wong noted, “In three years, I’ll be close to finishing my degree and I really don’t know if I’ll choose to stay here after I graduate.”
Not all students who fail to meet the residency requirements to vote in the upcoming election think their exclusion is a bad thing.
“I agree completely with the voting rules,” said Dave Marchant, a graduate student at UBC. A native of Baddeck, Nova Scotia, he won’t be casting a ballot on November 15th, but he doesn’t mind.
“The municipalities have limited power compared to the national or provincial governments,” Marchant said. “But the decisions they make affect the local community on a day-to-day basis. Everything from property taxes to public transit to garbage falls under the municipal government.”
“I think that you really need to know a lot about the city before you can make an informed decision,” added Marchant.
“I definitely don’t think you can expect someone to develop an informed opinion on local issues in less than six months, and I don’t think it’s fair to the people who live here long term to have their vote undermined by someone who might just be passing through.”
International students want a say
Lisa Anderson, a fourth year general science student from Hermosa, California, shared Wong’s frustration at being excluded from municipal politics.
“I’ve been living here for three and a half years, and I feel as though my voice isn’t being heard,” said Anderson. “It’s frustrating.”
Since starting at UBC, Anderson has only returned to Hermosa for short visits. In spite of that, she is still eligible to vote in local, state and national elections. But because she is not a Canadian citizen, she is ineligible to vote in any election north of the border.
“I spend more time here than I spend in my home state,” Anderson noted. “So what happens up here affects me way more than what happens at home, where I’m still allowed to vote.”
Although she can see the logic in limiting the franchise to Canadian citizens, Anderson thinks the rules should be amended to grant international students a say in local matters.
For the moment, relaxing residency rules for students new to Vancouver isn’t up for debate. Wong thinks that the reason none of the candidates have talked about this sort of reform is obvious.
“The only people interested in hearing about new rules for students like me are students like me,” he said. “Since we don’t have a vote, no one’s trying to appeal to us.”