Virtual Campaigns Aim to Fix Voter Apathy Among Vancouverites

In the final countdown to Canada’s 44th election, one Vancouver candidate has turned to one hit wonder Lou Bega to drum up support. 

Vancouver Centre’s NDP contender, Breen Ouellette, posted a political version of “Mambo #5,” (accompanied by local duo Socialist Horns) on his campaign’s Facebook and Twitter to lighten the political mood.

“The election can be so heavy. It’s easy to look at all these things and just get heavy hearted,” says Ouellette, a 44-year-old Metis lawyer, who’s running for a second time against eight-term Liberal incumbent Hedy Fry. He’s referring to the vitriol over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s early election call, during Canada’s fourth pandemic wave. 

“I’m trying to remind people that working on our politics and trying to have a more inclusive, safer, healthier country is something we should celebrate.”

Given the ongoing pandemic, creative uses of social media can go a long way to stand out as users scroll endlessly through content. Local comedian Charlie Demers isn’t vying for a seat in the House of Commons, but his use of social media to endorse a candidate highlights a desire for some democratic fun.

“Online tools for communication are definitely amplified right now, not just in terms of different parties trying to get their message out, but also in the other direction,” says Terry Wilkings, who works with Apathy is Boring, a non-profit organization working to engage youth in Canadian politics. “It’s how the public is trying to articulate what’s important to them, and their decision on who to vote for. Young people, in particular, are driving the conversation through social media.”

Youth engagement in Canadian politics has gone up by 10 percent since the 2019 federal election, according to a study  conducted by Apathy is Boring and Abacus Data

To explain this increase, researchers point to several factors that have affected young people in the past two years: pandemic unemployment, CERB payments, the Black Lives Matter movements, anti-Asian racism and the discovery of unmarked graves at Canada’s former residential schools. 

“Many of the issues that young people in Vancouver, and likewise across the country, care about will be impacted one way or another from the outcome of the election,” says Wilkings. 

“So it’s really just about solidifying that connection, so that drives a sense of purpose behind getting to the polls.”

Only 50 percent of youth who were surveyed say they voted in the last election. When asked why, the main reason was a lack of motivation. 

Apathy is Boring has their work cut out for them in “no fun city,” where voter turnout was only 61.8 percent in 2019. Voter turnout for British Columbia’s 2020 election was even lower at just 54.5 percent.

The group is using social media as a form of peer-to-peer engagement, where young people encourage each other to vote by learning about the democratic process together, and making a “game day” plan. With in-person learning starting back up, and people returning to work, busy schedules and COVID-19 fears threaten to reduce voter turnout. 

In some neighbourhoods, another digital tool that flourished during the pandemic—QR Codes—is making resources on the federal election more accessible.

Gordon Neighbourhood House in the West End has set up signs throughout the neighborhood which bear QR Codes and #WestEndVotes. By scanning it, people are taken to a page with resources on voting eligibility, logistics and methods, plus a breakdown of the candidates in all six Vancouver ridings.

Social media use by politicians and the general public may not be unique to Vancouver. But the city should be fairly prepared for the election after already having cast votes in a pandemic, thanks to 2020’s provincial contest. 

“There’s a higher sense of understanding in terms of the mechanics of voting in a pandemic situation than elsewhere,” says Wilkings.

So far, that familiarity has shown up modestly at advance polls. Election Canada estimates 96,758 people in the six ridings of Vancouver have already cast their vote, up by 4 per cent from 2019.