Illustration of a group of people standing below voting check mark boxes

Illustration by June Anderson

5 surprising barriers to voting in Canada

As election day approaches, some voters need a little extra help to get to the polls

On election day 2015, a beautiful October morning, David strapped on his forearm crutches and made his way to his voting station, a local school. As he approached the building, ready to cast a ballot, the sight of the doorway pried open for voters stopped him in his tracks. There was a narrow step he wouldn’t be able to get over – and no handrail, either. “I was really upset, saying to myself, ‘You’re kidding me here,’” says David, who asked that his surname be withheld. “I was all ready to go home.”

Fortunately, the staff noticed his predicament and hauled out a table and chair so David could vote in the playground, just outside the door. “It was kind of cute,” he says, adding that he mercifully didn’t show up during recess, “or else I would’ve been run over.”

While David is good natured about the incident, the fact is, it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Many of us take the mechanics of voting for granted, concerned only about potentially long line-ups (not to mention which candidate to choose). But for some voters, systematic issues can keep them from having their say on election day at all. These are some of the most significant barriers to voting in Canada—and some Toronto and GTA initiatives designed to overcome them.

1. Not having a home.

Any political campaign organizer will tell you that the most effective way to reach voters is knocking on doors. But what if someone doesn’t have one? Candidates often miss reaching community members who are precariously housed or are in assisted living facilities, says Wendy Porch, executive director of the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto (CILT).

Having to show ID at the polling station can be a huge deterrent for people with no fixed address. It’s not like they can easily produce a hydro bill. “A lot of people feel if they don’t have an ID or a voter’s card they can’t vote,” says Maseeda Majeed, community advocacy coordinator at Toronto’s Regent Park Community Food Centre, a United Way-funded agency. But there are alternatives, she says, such as getting a letter of confirmation from an authority at a senior’s residence, long-term care institution, shelter, soup kitchen or community based residential facility.

One initiative that’s helping people who use shelters and food banks to engage in the political process is Eat Think Vote. This non-partisan campaign, run by Food Secure Canada, organizes forums and meetings between voters and local candidates to talk about the issues that matter to them, in particular food security. During this election cycle, York Region Food Network, Regent Park Community Food Centre and Parkdale Food Centre have all hosted events in the GTA. Having their voice heard by politicians makes people experiencing housing insecurity and other poverty-related issues more inclined to find their way to the polls.

2. Being a new Canadian

For some newcomers to Canada it may be intimidating to take part in the democratic process— even after three years (at the very least) in the country, a citizenship exam and a ceremony. In many cases, back in their country of origin, the simple act of voting could have been grounds for persecution. “In some parts of the world, voting is very dangerous,” says Majeed. “So we’re trying to help people understand the different process we have and help them not only be able to get there to vote, but to feel safe to vote.”

That’s where the Vote Pop-up comes in. The Canadian Vote Coalition, a non-partisan national network of more than 600 community organizations, has created materials to hold simulations of voting day in Canada for anyone who’s either new to Canada or simply new to voting.

During these simulations, a community member that the soon-to-be voter trusts will familiarize them with the voting process: how to find their polling station; what information they need to bring; how to tick off the box for the candidate and party they’d like to support. It’s mock voting—voting without the pressure. Even permanent residents who won’t be eligible to vote during the current election cycle can get a head start and familiarize themselves with the process.

In many cases, back in their country of origin, the simple act of voting could have been grounds for persecution. “In some parts of the world, voting is very dangerous,”

When voters have a good experience, they feel confident enough to come out and actually cast a ballot on election day. And this dry run also generates discussion. “A lot of marginalized people, new immigrants and people of colour feel left out of the political conversation,” Majeed says. “They don’t feel like politicians cater to the poor, but this activity really gets into that discussion of why our voices matter.”

3. Being young

Vision Brampton is an organization that helps engage youth who have felt left out of the electoral process. Brampton, which has the lowest average age of any Canadian city and a population that’s 52 percent low income, is also the largest majority-racialized city in the country. The volunteer-run organization’s aim is to engage marginalized young people who may not necessarily identify as political, but who care about getting better jobs and better transit and helping to put food on the table.

In September 2019, Vision Brampton joined together with 20 other youth organizations to host a Civic Action Forum at Brampton City Hall. The event was packed with youth, many of whom had never voted before, and included three panel discussions with civic leaders as well as a youth-led town hall with federal politicians from all parties. “It was electric,” says executive director and founder Marilyn Verghis. “When it comes to issues that resonate, tons of our members have realized, ‘Oh, I am a political person. My existence is inherently political.’”

The biggest barrier to cross is the perception that young people are apathetic. “It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: Politicians don’t listen to young people, and the cycle repeats,” says Verghis. “[What we’re doing is] changing the narrative that young people don’t care. I think young people care a whole lot.”

4. Having a disability

For Canadians with disabilities, the barriers to voting start early, says Porch. If your disability is physical, it can be a monumental task trying to plan for WheelTrans to get you to a polling station. If you’re hearing impaired, it’s highly unlikely there’ll be an American Sign Language interpreter at an all-candidates debate. Most of the time, disabled voters have no choice but to vote in advance polls, because special voting technology for disabled Canadians is often not even available on election day.

“[Disabled voters] are locked out of the democratic process in a real way,” says David Meyers, senior manager of independent living programs at CILT. “They don’t have that equal footing with folks who know [that] when they show up they [won’t] have an issue.” Meyers remembers going to an advance poll with his wife, who is blind and a regular voter — there were no braille ballots, and so she needed him to cast the ballot for her. (He had to sign a document declaring he would accurately convey her wishes.) “It’s not an independent way to vote,” Meyers says. “Someone else gets to see what your vote is.”

Most of the time, disabled voters have no choice but to vote in advance polls, because special voting technology for disabled Canadians is often not even available on election day.

In partnership with the GTA Disability Coalition, a newly formed coalition comprising 17 member organizations, CILT will hold a federal election forum at Ryerson Student Centre on October 16, 2019. The event will feature a panel of experts with lived experience who’ll speak to accessibility issues in this election, and how to make a plan to get to the polls with as few barriers as possible.

5. Being behind bars

Incarcerated Canadians have the right to vote—but they have to do it by special ballot. A prison staff member is put in charge of processing and registering voters. Inmates are considered constituents of wherever they last lived (or were last arrested), not where they’re imprisoned, so they’ll want to be up to speed on the candidates in those ridings – not an easy task, unless they’re doing self-directed research.
Interestingly, Canadian prisoners ALL essentially vote in advance polls: A polling station is set up within the prison twelve days before election day, and voters attend and fill out their ballots after first making a declaration of honesty. Next, the ballots are sent by secure courier to Elections Canada and counted with other absentee ballots.
“[Incarcerated Canadians] are part of the polity and they want to be part of the democratic process,” said Catherine Latimer, executive director of The John Howard Society of Canada, in an interview with CBC News in 2015, adding that voters behind bars tend to have more time to watch the news and read up about politics, so they’re often actually better informed than the average voter.

It’s so easy to take voting for granted, but it’s also very easy to be aware of these barriers other folks may face. While respecting people’s agency, of course, it’s always great to speak up to let elections staff know if there don’t seem to be any Braille ballots available, or a room looks too tight for a wheelchair. Or you could volunteer for a carpool to the polls and check in on friends who may be newcomers or not so engaged in the voting process, and maybe even accompany them on voting day. We can all help ensure more Canadians exercise their civic right — so that Canada can truly be a country for all of us.

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