Ontarians will head to the polls on June 7 to elect their representatives at Queen’s Park. In the three months until then, Elections Ontario will be hard at work organizing the ballots. Greg Essensa has been Ontario’s Chief Electoral Officer since 2008, and he is the former Toronto Director of Elections and Registry Services. The Varsity spoke with Essensa about how the province was engaging younger generations to vote, and the issues that can prevent them from doing so.
The Varsity: A problem the province has had in the past is engaging students and young people to vote in elections. Do you have any concrete plans to address this issue?
Greg Essensa: This past September, we launched our e-registration application, and we were on all 50 college and university campuses across the province. The idea was to engage students, to let them know their rights, and to ensure that they are registered at the appropriate location.
We’re also educating students, because most students aren’t aware that under the Elections Act here in Ontario, they have the ability to pick their residence. If they’re, let’s say, a student that lives in Toronto but is going to Western, they have the opportunity to pick their riding in Western as their home riding for the election.
TV: This year, the provincial elections are during the summer, specifically in June, rather than in the fall, when most students have classes. Do you think this will encourage students to go vote if they aren’t in class at the time?
GE: I think it encourages students to go vote. One of the challenges we often have with fall elections are the students are engaged in their academic studies. If they have a term paper, if they have some examination that’s coming up, they get very engaged in their studies — which they should — sometimes voting becomes a secondary thought to them.
But in June, for most students,
schools are out, students are very engaged. It also allows them to participate in the democratic process. They can work for us, they can get engaged with political parties, and it allows them to become proactive civil society students and getting involved in that democratic process, in the means and the ways that they wish to.
TV: Ontario has for years debated moving from the current system of first-past-the-post to a mixed-member-proportional system. Even the University of Toronto Students’ Union has shifted to using ranked ballots. Does Elections Ontario swing one way, or support any kind of referendum movement to decide a shift or not?
GE: Our role at Elections Ontario is to be neutral and impartial, which means we don’t really engage in a public policy debate. Should the legislature examine a different means of voting, like they did in 2007, Elections Ontario’s role becomes primarily about educating the electorate on what those changes are.
Our role is to provide them what we would need, how it would be administered, are there costs implications, et cetera. Our role in public policy debates is to remain neutral, and to ensure that we are providing factual evidence and information to the various stakeholders who require it.
TV: In recent elections, both in Canada and across the world, accusations have been made regarding the validity of the elections process. What processes does Elections Ontario have to safeguard the elections?
GE: Fundamentally, our elections process in Canada has been very well regarded because of the fact that it’s very simple. When you come to a poll, we have a deputy returning officer, a poll clerk to ensure that there’s no one ‘stuffing the ballot box.’ We balance the process.
The beauty of the electoral process here in Ontario and in Canada is the fact that the confidence that electors have that once they drop their ballot in that box, they know that the ballot will be voted in a fair, transparent fashion, and that the result that I reported will reflect the will of the people. I think our job is to ensure that that integrity and that confidence in the electoral process is maintained.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.