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It's not really about encouraging voting

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It's not like we haven't tried.

We've used celebrities, social media and mass media. Young people have told young people to vote. Old people have told young people to vote. Nothing seems to work.

More and more younger Canadians are choosing not to vote, many with a perverse kind of pride.

After years of trying to find new ways to get out the younger vote, perhaps we're giving up. Our concern may be slowly evolving into contempt.

Instead of rousing sermons on the importance of electoral democracy, we've decided young people, and other groups that don't show up in significant numbers at election time, don't deserve the right to vote. If you think that's a paranoid rant, just consider the number of jurisdictions introducing or interpreting laws to make it harder for young people to vote.

The federal government's Fair Elections Act, for example, is still promising to eliminate "vouching" -- the process by which voters with little or no identification, or who move a lot, can register to vote. The bill would also stop Elections Canada from doing anything to encourage us to vote. Both of these measures directly impact efforts to recruit younger voters.

On Tuesday, former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley appeared before a parliamentary committee and issued a stern warning to MPs about the risk of these changes. Kingsley noted the elimination of vouching alone will disenfranchise many aboriginals, youth and transients who don't have proper ID. "This will directly affect the constitutional right to vote of a significant number of Canadians without justification," Kingsley said.

Efforts to discourage younger voters are not limited to federal politics. In Quebec, some full-time university students have been denied the opportunity to register to vote. This, despite the fact the law says you only need be a resident in the province for six months to be eligible to cast a ballot. When prodded about this problem, Quebec Justice Minister Bertrand St-Arnaud said he didn't want the election "stolen by people from Ontario and the rest of Canada."

No one in politics will come right out and admit they would prefer it if certain kinds of people didn't vote at all. But it seems that is the motivation behind both measures.

The federal Conservatives claim they are addressing voter fraud, even though no one -- not a single independent source -- has any evidence voter fraud is a problem. This is nearly identical to scenarios in some American states, where laws have been passed to make it harder for people with little or no identification to register to vote. In the U.S., this has been exposed as a deliberate, cynical attempt by one party to exclude voters who, when they do vote, tend to support a different party.

Quebec is using a similar argument, that ineligible voters could skew the final result. The PQ has calculated anglophone students born in other provinces but attending university in Quebec are federalist by nature and thus will not vote for a separatist government. Again, says Quebec's chief electoral officer, there has been no surge in voter registration by students who came from other provinces.

Taken together, these stories join a growing body of evidence suggesting many politicians do not want higher voter turnout. Voter suppression -- either by misleading attack ads or through tactics like "robocalls" -- is becoming de rigueur for most parties.

Until recently, however, most suppression efforts were conducted in the ethically ambiguous backrooms of partisan political organizations. Out in the open, most politicians still claim they would like higher voter turnout.

It took the Fair Elections Act, and Quebec's preposterous bid to deny students the chance to vote, to bring this simmering contempt out into the open.

If only we could be as transparent and shameless as northern Manitoba's Garden Hill First Nation.

As many people read recently, a group of Garden Hill residents voted to stop anyone on reserve under 40 from running for council and anyone under 50 from running for chief.

Witnesses reported the residents, all older band members, resented younger people ignoring band politics and governance. So, they were excluded from running for office. It was the "use-it-or-lose-it" approach to voter engagement.

It was also a blatant violation of basic human rights. However, it was refreshing if only for the fact it was obvious what the band members were doing and why they were doing it.

In mainstream politics, we don't have that clarity. Instead, elected officials defend voter suppression as an enhancement to democracy.

Can anything be done? Unfortunately, measures to discourage already discouraged groups of voters are likely to be successful. That leaves just one solution: The targets of voter suppression need to do exactly what cynical politicians fear the most. Vote.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2014 A4

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