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Students face difficulties in voter registration

When PhD student Misia Kowanda set out to register to vote on August 28, she didn’t expect it to be a 4.5-hour ordeal.

That day, when she traveled to her local revision office to add her name to the list of electors, she was turned away because she was a student and staffers assumed that she had a permanent residence outside of Quebec.

After reviewing the voting requirements online, Kowanda – originally from Burlington, Ontario – called the same local office, wanting to know why she could not register.

She told The Daily that she had a lengthy discussion with a staff member from the office, who insisted that students are not always eligible.

According to Kowanda, he told her, “You have to understand, a lot of students with strong opinions come here, vote, and leave without living with the outcome of the vote.”

However, he was unable to refer her to a specific portion of the Elections Act that dealt with students or explained why she failed to meet the requirements to vote.

She then called the Directeur général des élections du Québec (DGEQ) and verified that she did in fact have the right to vote. They urged her to call them back if she had more trouble registering.

Kowanda returned to the revision office with her income tax forms from the past two years – filed in Quebec – and documents listing the voting requirements. After being questioned repeatedly about her lack of a Quebec Medicare card, she successfully registered.

To be eligible to vote in Quebec, a student must be 18 years or older on Election Day, a Canadian citizen, a resident of Quebec for six months, and registered on the list of electors. Students whose families live outside Quebec are eligible to vote there if they have lived in the province for at least six months and are registered.

According to Christian Gohel, a returning officer for the Westmount–Saint-Louis riding, the staff members who questioned Kowanda were part of a commission de révision, a committee of three people – two of whom have been nominated by political parties – that adds, updates, and strikes names from the list of electors.

“Concerning the students, it is a special case because the law says that you have to be domicile in Quebec for three to six months,” said Gohel.

He explained that many students come to Montreal from Ontario wanting to vote in both provinces.

“Some people misunderstand the meaning of the six months because it’s not six months of temporary residence, it’s six months of being established for good,” he said.

According to the Civil Code, a person’s domicile is defined as “the place of his principal establishment.”

Kowanda, who has lived in Montreal for three years and files her tax returns in Quebec, said she considers Quebec to be her principal establishment.

When she was first told to leave the revision office, she recounted being devastated and on the verge of tears.

“I was so upset that my vote wouldn’t matter,” she said.

This will be her first time voting in a federal or provincial election.

Kowanda also expressed concerns that the personal opinions of elections staff members may be preventing eligible students like her from voting.

Ilona Dougherty, executive director of Apathy Is Boring (AIS) – a non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing youth voting rates through art and technology –  explained that the Quebec system of voter registration may be a huge deterrent to youth participation.

“The process in Quebec is not obvious,” said Dougherty. “You need to register before Election Day. You have two deadlines, and I know that a lot of people don’t realize that.”

Though Dougherty said she doesn’t blame overzealous elections staff for Quebec’s low youth turnout, she said that accessibility for voters – young and old – is a huge problem.

She also explained that temporary workers who receive a small amount of training often staff elections.

“Whether an individual worker makes a bad choice, that’s definitely something that’s plausible,” said Dougherty.

According to Gohel, this election saw an unprecedented number of people attempting to register to vote, which led to some delays at his revision office.

“It was easy to see that people were very anxious to be put on the list,” he said.

Students who encounter difficulties with registration can report them on the Elections Quebec website.

As for Kowanda, “I urge her to complain,” said Gohel. “Sometimes the process needs to be updated. Sometimes the procedures are too long, too tedious. Unless people complain, things change very slowly.”