U of M political science professors Jared Wesley and Andrea Rounce, along with a group of student volunteers, are taking action to promote knowledge and awareness of provincial politics through a series of public lectures and discussions held at locations throughout Winnipeg and Manitoba.
The project, called U2011, includes a series of “Cafés Politiques” led by prominent journalists and academics in the province, and held at public venues such as coffee shops, schools, bookstores, and shopping malls. Discussion topics vary from political engagement of minority groups, to the regulations surrounding the electoral process.
The Cafés Politiques aim to connect citizens with experts so they can ask questions and challenge commonly held views about Manitoban politics. The overall goal is to raise the level of awareness of Manitoban politics, so that more citizens can engage in the democratic process, according to the U2011 project’s website.
“As we began studying the results of non-voter studies conducted following the 2003 and 2007 provincial elections, we noticed that over half of Manitobans who decided not to cast a ballot did so because they felt they lacked enough knowledge to participate meaningfully in the process,” said Wesley. “We saw it as part of our responsibility to help educate Manitobans about their democratic system.”
According to the project’s website, voter turnout in 2003 was 54.2 per cent, and grew to just 56.8 per cent in 2007. Approximately six in 10 non-voters reported being too ill-informed about the political process to cast a meaningful ballot.
“Voter turnout is an important issue,” said Suzie De Luca, a student volunteer for the project. “It’s important to exercise our democratic rights.”
Finding a way to reach out to chronic non-voters is one of the biggest challenges faced by the U2011 team, said Wesley.
“The types of citizens who are least likely to turnout to vote are also least likely to go out of their way to come to our events,” he said. “We’ve had to be creative, and have taken our discussions to the areas where political engagement has been lowest.”
De Luca, along with political science student, Malaya Marcelino, are also involved in the “VoteAnyWay” initiative, a project geared more towards Manitoba’s youth population. The initiative will lead up to a public service announcement competition in which youth, 14 to 25 years-old, are encouraged to submit a video of their interpretation of the “VoteAnyWay” slogan. The PSA’s are aimed at encouraging young people to vote in the upcoming provincial election.
Interviews with prominent Manitobans, such as Fred Penner and Gail Asper, about the importance of voting are posted on the “VoteAnyWay” Facebook page, on the university’s website and on YouTube.
“A possible reason for low voter turnout among youth could be accessibility,” said De Luca. “This is where the VoteAnyWay initiative comes in as it is all about making the discussion accessible to the public.”
De Luca said the public response to both the U2011 project and the “VoteAnyWay” initiative has been “positive, encouraging, and inspirational.”
“It’s been a fantastic experience,” she said.
For Wesley, the success of the project won’t be certain until after the Oct. 4 election.
“If fewer Manitobans cite being unknowledgeable about provincial politics as a reason for staying home on election day, I think we’ll have succeeded,” he said.
Among the upcoming Cafés Politiques are discussions on understanding campaign strategies, understanding public opinion, understanding Aboriginal politics in Manitoba, and understanding politics in Northern Manitoba.
Dates and venues for the upcoming Cafés Politiques can be found on the U2011 website, umanitoba.ca/outreach/u2011.