Damhat Zagros can’t wait to cast his ballot in Winnipeg’s upcoming civic election. It will be the 28-year-old’s first time voting — ever.
That’s not because he didn’t want to before. After arriving in Winnipeg as a Kurdish Syrian refugee from Lebanon in 2017, Zagros couldn’t vote in the city’s 2018 election because he wasn’t yet a Canadian citizen.
That requirement, which other cities have moved to change, is one of several hurdles to voting that still exist for many people in Winnipeg.
Even for those eligible to cast a ballot, Zagros said issues like language barriers and lack of transportation still prevent many from getting to the polls — and those issues may be more pronounced in certain parts of the city.
While just 42 per cent of eligible Winnipeg voters cast their ballots in 2018, turnout was even lower in four north and central wards.
In Mynarski and Point Douglas, only around 30 per cent of voters cast a ballot for council, while less than 36 per cent did in Daniel McIntyre and Elmwood-East Kildonan, data from the city clerk’s office shows. Everywhere else, turnout was 40 per cent or higher.
“People should get access to be able to vote because this type of decision is impacting their community,” said Zagros, who now works at Aurora Family Therapy Centre in the city’s Daniel McIntyre ward and studies human rights at the University of Winnipeg.
“We need additional support to be able to be our own voices.”
Some of that support comes from organizations in Daniel McIntyre like Immigration Partnership Winnipeg. Project manager Erika Frey Morote says the non-profit has created election resources to help reach people who may not otherwise be engaged, in languages like Arabic, Spanish, Dinka and Tagalog.
Frey Morote, originally from Peru, said the wards where voter turnout was lower in 2018 include neighbourhoods where newcomers tend to settle, because housing is often more affordable there.
She’s not surprised those areas were the ones affected most. Turnout tends to be lower among newcomers, either because of barriers or because they were disillusioned by voting in their home country. But that just means more needs to be done there to engage people in the process, she said.
“If we want to be an inclusive city that really supports all of its citizens and recognize the contribution of them to our society, we have to be able to provide an opportunity for those folks to vote,” Frey Morote said.
Voting without a ride — or an ID
In the city’s Point Douglas ward, organizations like Main Street Project are working to improve voter turnout among people who use their services, many of whom are experiencing homelessness.
That includes helping educate people about the election and how they can vote — like the option to take an oath if they don’t have ID — and driving or walking with them to cast their ballots, said Kate Sjoberg, Main Street Project’s director of community initiatives.
Many people who are homeless or have precarious housing are interested in effecting change because of their own experiences, but those same experiences often make it difficult for them to vote, she said.
“It’s really hard to be homeless. It’s really hard to not be able to pay your bills,” said Sjoberg, who ran for the Point Douglas council seat in 2018.
“Even if you’re interested in voting, it becomes more difficult … to get to the polls, the more challenges that you have in your own life.”
That issue also comes up at the West Central Women’s Resource Centre in the Daniel McIntyre ward, where drop-in staff recently organized a workshop to hear the reasons participants planned to vote in the election.
Those answers formed the basis for a colourful zine now available at the women’s centre that also spells out basics like what a city councillor does and what kinds of services municipalities are responsible for, said Jill Beauchamp, who runs the centre’s drop-in programming.
The less-formal communication style has been a helpful way to connect with people when election coverage isn’t top of mind or if they’re apprehensive about voting to begin with, Beauchamp said.
“There is distrust of larger systems, especially by folks who have been let down by systems or folks who are just trying to, you know, make ends meet and find food for the day,” Beauchamp said.
“Having sort of accessible, easy to read information … helps spread the word about these things within the community in a way that is short-form but, like, right to the point and also kind of fun.”
The zine is just one part of the centre’s work to improve voter turnout among its clients this year, said director of policy advocacy Kirsten Bernas.
It has also arranged rides to the polls with help from a city-run shuttle service, hosted an ID clinic for people who didn’t have the identification needed to vote easily, and provided opportunities for people to learn more about the civic election process and how it affects their lives.
“Hopefully the more we’re able to create those opportunities to come and learn about that … we’ll see more folks from these neighbourhoods getting out to vote,” Bernas said.
‘You’ve got to keep showing up’: advocate
Easy-to-digest information about the election is a key part of getting people engaged in the civic process, said Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, which has compiled a voter’s guide and information sheets on issues like housing and transit.
But even voters who don’t face challenges in learning about the election or how to vote may have a hard time getting to the polls on election day if their employers don’t give them time off — which isn’t required for Winnipeg elections like it is for provincial and federal ones, Kehler said.
The fact that wards with high rates of poverty were the ones with the lowest turnout in 2018 sends a strong message, she said.
“Those are people we have historically excluded, and we don’t make the process for them to include themselves easy,” Kehler said.
But for the most part, low voter turnout stems from people thinking their votes don’t make a difference, she said.
“That’s what we’ve got to convince people,” Kehler said. “If we really just show up on a regular basis — not just once, you’ve got to keep showing up … the political leadership then says, ‘OK, wait a minute, these people could actually vote me out.'”
Advance polls in Winnipeg are open until Oct. 21. Election day is Oct. 26.
More information on the election, including lists of candidates, voting locations and voter eligibility, is available on the City of Winnipeg’s website.
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