Students put their electoral know-how to the vote

A little over a month from now, thousands of students will be casting ballots in their own version of the federal election. TVO.org talks with a non-profit that’s working to create a new generation of informed voters
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Sep 10, 2019
a student at a mock voting booth
CIVIX, a Toronto-based non-profit, anticipates that more than 1 million young people will participate in its Student Vote program in 2019. (facebook.com/studentvote)

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How can we make sure that first-time voters are confident, prepared, and informed? For a start, make sure they’re not really first-time voters.

That’s part of the idea behind the Student Vote program, which sees students from grades 4 to 12 participate in mock elections that run parallel to the real ones: this year, young people from across the country will evaluate political platforms and candidates and then, a week before the federal election on October 21, cast their own ballots.

Founded in 2002, Student Vote merged with another program, Operation Dialogue, in 2013, becoming CIVIX. Based in Toronto, the organization is funded by private donors, election offices, government ministries, and education groups. In 2015, more than 900,000 students from roughly 6,600 schools “voted” with CIVIX. In 2019, the organization anticipates that more than 1 million young people will participate.

The numbers are encouraging: in the last federal election, 58 per cent of those eligible to vote for the first time cast a ballot, up nearly 18 percentage points from the previous cycle. But, according to CIVIX, the political landscape is becoming increasingly complicated — so the issue is not simply empowering young people to vote, but also making sure that they know how to analyze hyper-partisan messaging and the misinformation that’s rife on social media. That’s why, for this election season, the organization will also be introducing a news-literacy program.

TVO.org spoke with Frédérique Dombrowski, CIVIX’s outreach and stakeholder manager, and Dimtri Pavlounis, its news-literacy-education coordinator, about getting kids fired up about the electoral process, fighting misinformation, and why they want to kill the phrase “fake news.”

Why was Student Vote created?

Dombrowski: Student Vote was created in 2002 by Taylor Gunn and Lindsay Mazzucco. Since then, we've run 46 student-vote elections at all levels of government across the country. The reason it was created is because [Gunn and Mazzucco] realized it's hard to ask students to be civically engaged when they turn 18 if they've never been engaged before. We want to start them at an early age. It allows all students — not just those whose parents are engaged — the opportunity to take part. In the last federal election, we had 922,000 students voting from roughly 6,600 schools in every riding in Canada. For this election, we're currently only 500 schools away from our biggest enrolment yet. Registration is open until the end of September. We're expecting 9,000 schools and one million students to vote. In the last provincial election, 280,000 students from across Ontario participated. They elected a majority NDP government.

Why is starting young so critical?

Dombrowski: This is an opportunity for teachers to remind their students that, although they aren't voters yet, they are constituents. So the direction that their riding takes, and the country as a whole, affects them. In order to think critically about what's happening, the better it is that they have those habits and attitudes built in from a young age. When you’re 18, the level of embarrassment when you don't know something can be quite high. Sometimes, unfortunately, that can be a hurdle for a potential voter, because they don't know how it works. But, through Student Vote, there’s a chance that these students, when they reach 18, they have already voted five or six times.

How does Student Vote work?

Dombrowski: It’s completely voluntary, so a school can sign up when there's an election. A teacher can sign up an individual classroom or school-wide. It’s up to the teacher and what they're able to take on. After they’ve signed up, we mail them free pedagogical resources and election material. On Student Vote day — in this case, the week before the official election — they take on the role of election officials. Students cast ballots for the candidate in their riding. If there's a referendum question in their riding, we put that on the ballot, too. Everything on the ballot for adults is also on the ballot for kids. 

When did you add a media-literacy component to Student Vote?

Pavlounis: Information literacy has always been a part of the Student Vote program in some way. In order for a democracy to function, citizens need to know how to access and digest information. In the 2016 United States presidential election, the world woke up to the fact that maybe our populace isn't as digitally literate as we once thought. This is about teaching students how and why they see the information they do online. We launched an information-literacy pilot project in May 2018, incorporating it into Ontario’s provincial election the following month. 

How do you approach the problem of misinformation?

Pavlounis: We've included four specific information-literacy lessons: informed citizenship, online-verification habits, questioning images — and the fourth looks at journalism and democracy.

Informed citizenship is about asking students to think through how the information they receive influences their decisions and how and why they get the information they do online. We introduce them to algorithms and explain how they are more likely to see emotional content and content that already conforms to their interests and beliefs. We have videos and activities about how information is spread on social media and how social media incentivize content that polarizes our emotions. If my version of Canada is different than the one you read about, how can we make decisions?

Online-verification habits is about teaching practical skills that students can use immediately to verify information. Of the four, this is the most important thing we are trying to communicate. We have a wealth of tools at our disposal; we just need to teach students, and ourselves, to use them. Wikipedia is one tool that comes to mind. Teachers are still suspicious of it, but if you’re on a website, and you want to know if it’s legitimate, Wikipedia is a very good first stop — to find credibility signals and determine whether or not we want to spend time on that website.

Questioning images is about visual analysis. So much of the information we encounter — political or otherwise — is visual, and students are not often equipped to think critically about what they’re seeing. It’s a different set of skills than reading. We give students an image and ask them: What do you see? How does it make you feel? Is the image real, or has it been manipulated? Would it be ethical to share the image online?

Finally, the journalism and democracy lesson hopes to make sure all this talk doesn’t erode the students’ trust in legitimate media. Kids don't know that journalists adhere to standards or ethical codes or that legacy newspapers have correction policies. One of the goals is for students to be able to figure out which sources they find credible and which issues they find meaningful. In other words, encourage them to build a database of trustworthy sources. 

How do you address so-called fake news?

Pavlouvis: One of the first things we want to do is get students and teachers, and the public, not to use “fake news” as a term. It’s basically been rendered meaningless. It often describes factual information that we just don't like. So we invite students to use more nuanced terms like information pollution, disinformation, misinformation, mal-information. Part of this is about getting them out of thinking about fake news in an amorphous way that could mean anything and instead getting them to think about misinformation and disinformation

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