Elections Canada is launching a campaign this month that will see the independent agency pay YouTubers, musicians and other social-media stars to promote voter participation in this year’s federal election.
The $650,000 campaign will target demographics with below average voter participation rates, particularly young Canadians.
The challenge for the non-partisan agency is that the voting patterns of specific populations – such as youth – can differ from the national average. As a result, boosting turnout among young voters could benefit some political parties over others in the election scheduled for Oct. 21.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail at Elections Canada headquarters in Gatineau, Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault said he understands that such campaigns are politically sensitive.
He said Elections Canada combed through the online postings of potential personalities to weed out those who were aligned with a political party. The final list of 13 social media “influencers” – who have not yet been identified publicly – were also required to sign agreements pledging to remain politically neutral in their public comments during the campaign and for a year after.
“It’s the first time that we’ve done this,” he said. “I have not picked these people and I have to confess that I probably wouldn’t recognize many of them if I were asked to … We’re looking at influencers who are known in a range of communities – especially with youth – who are known on social-media platforms and we’re using those influencers to invite Canadians to go online and register.”
Elections Canada declined to release the names of the 13 influencers, but a spokesperson said they include Canadian Olympic athletes, television personalities, singer-songwriters and YouTubers.
A survey released this week by Abacus Data found a big difference between the voting intentions of younger and older Canadians. Among those between the ages of 18 to 29, the Liberals have the support of 35 per cent, followed by the NDP at 24 per cent, the Conservatives at 23 per cent and the Green Party at 14 per cent.
In contrast, the Conservatives have a strong lead among voters aged 60 or over, with 42 per cent support. The Liberals are second in that age group with 31 per cent, followed by 11 per cent for the NDP and 9 per cent for the Greens.
The online survey of 1,500 Canadian adults was conducted between May 27 to 30. (A margin of error cannot be assigned because it is an online survey, however the margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)
During the 2015 campaign, Elections Canada was subject to restrictions on promoting voter turnout after the then-Conservative government changed federal voting laws.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government reversed many of those changes, including erasing Elections Canada’s ban on promoting voter turnout.
Mr. Perrault was appointed in June, 2018, to a 10-year term as Chief Electoral Officer. The lawyer and public service veteran first joined Elections Canada in 2007 as senior general counsel.
For his first election as CEO, Mr. Perrault will be responsible for overseeing the implementation of sweeping new elections rules contained in Bill C-76, which was approved by Parliament in December.
One of the biggest changes is a new concept called a “pre-writ” period in which political parties and third-party interest groups face new rules, including spending limits. The pre-writ period begins June 30 and Mr. Perrault is meeting with political parties on June 13 to discuss their obligations. While political parties will continue to be exempt from federal privacy laws, they are required to have privacy policies in place by June 30.
The new law also requires social-media companies that accept campaign ads to list the ads on a public registry. So far, only Facebook has said it will comply. Google Canada has said it will decline all campaign advertising because the rules are too complicated to ensure compliance.
Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie, her party’s critic for democratic institutions, said she is very concerned that Elections Canada will allow its message to be delivered by outsiders.
“That makes me very uncomfortable that public servants themselves will not be providing this content,” she said. "We always believed that Bill C-76 was about rearranging the laws so that they benefit the government in the upcoming election.”
Even though Elections Canada was prevented from supporting voter participation campaigns in 2015, that election that produced a Liberal majority government saw an 18.3-percentage-point rise in the participation rate of voters between the ages of 18 to 24 – jumping to 57.1 per cent in 2015 from 38.3 per cent in 2011.