If school children could vote, the New Democrats would have swept into power long ago in British Columbia, where students buck the national trend in mock elections.
While actual voters elected Liberal governments in 2005 and 2009, kids across the province favoured the NDP in parallel elections, which ran alongside the real one and involved thousands of students from Grade 1 through high school.
On Monday, a day before adult British Columbians head to the polls, more than 100,000 school children will cast fake ballots that the program’s “chief electoral officer” will tally and keep secret until the official election results are in on Tuesday.
Taylor Gunn, founder of the Student Vote program, which has operated for 10 years and collected more than three million ballots in 19 mock elections across Canada, said he’s curious to see what B.C. students will decide this year.
In almost every parallel election outside B.C., students have elected the same government as their parents and other adult voters.
Even in the Alberta election last year, when pollsters predicted a Wildrose victory over the long-ruling Progressive Conservatives, Mr. Gunn’s 82,000 student ballots told a different story.
“Our results clearly said it was going to be an Alison Redford majority,” Mr. Gunn said of the Progressive Conservative Leader who was elected.
“This was at the time when everybody was trying to convince each other that (Wildrose Leader Danielle) Smith was going to be the next premier,” he said from Toronto.
There’s no way to know for sure why kids vote the way they do, or why B.C. students have bucked the national trend of mimicking adult voters and positioned themselves further left on the political spectrum.
But in the halls of Kerrisdale Elementary School in Vancouver, where fake campaign posters are plastered on bulletin boards, it’s clear that at least a few would-be political science majors know how to form their own opinions on the issues.
Grade 7 student Ben Horodyski said he’s planning to vote NDP because “they support education and children.”
Ben said he refuses to vote for Christy Clark because, in his view, she caused a teachers’ strike.
“I’m one of the few kids that actually likes school,” he said.
Ben said he appreciates the NDP’s focus on students and poverty reduction. “If families go into poverty, if my family went into poverty, they will always be supported.”
But Abby Johnston, also in Grade 7, plans to cast her fake ballot Monday for the Liberal party.
Abby said she chose to research the Liberal platform on education for her class assignment.
“They’re trying to invest in better education now for jobs in the future,” she said. “I think a lot of kids are concerned about what their future is going to look like.”
Abby said her parents didn’t influence her decision to vote Liberal.
“I don’t know that everybody talks about politics at home,” she said.
Mr. Gunn said fostering political dialogue between parents and children is one reason his non-profit, called Civix, has focused on the mock-election program.
“What we worry about is those families where parents are not talking to their kids about politics or democracy.
“There is an obvious problem with voter turnout and it doesn’t seem as complicated to fix as people are making it out to be,” Mr. Gunn said. “It’s kind of like math or science, or counting your change. It’s something we think people should be learning in school. But it’s also how you learn it that makes it either effective or not.
“We thought the best way for kids to learn this and become voters was to experience their democracy, not just study about it.”
Students at Kerrisdale Elementary had a chance to experience democracy when NDP candidate Nicholas Scapillati visited the school. They lobbed tough questions at the candidate based on their research.
“When there are candidate forums in the schools, (the students) grill the candidates in a way that those candidates are not usually grilled,” Mr. Gunn said.
“Part of that is due to the fact that kids have studied the issues and the platforms before they arrive. They are not already established somewhere on the political spectrum.”
Abby O’Brien said Mr. Scapillati’s visit swayed her position.
The 12-year-old said she liked what the NDP candidate had to say and thinks his party offers a more comprehensive platform compared to the Green party, which has the support of many of her peers.
Her classmate Chaya Rasmidatta said she plans to vote Green. “I’m with the environment and pollution is not good,” Chaya said.
“If we have environmental caution we are going to live longer and the world won’t explode,” she said about global warming.
Their teacher, Stella Chow, said that at the start of the campaign, her students participated in an online questionnaire that helps voters establish their political leanings. Most were left of centre, she said.
When Ms. Chow started doling out platform research assignments, she said the only way to avoid a mad dash for the Green party was to randomly assign students.
As Ben explained how important it is for him and his classmates to understand the democratic system, a pack of his schoolmates ran by and said they were going home to make “Green party crepes.”
Vice-principal John Cortens said he has even caught students vandalizing competing campaign signs – an unfortunate reflection of real-world politics.
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