Harnessing the power of peer pressure

St. Paul's GreenHouse

In the last federal election in 2011, only 38.8 percent of 18-24 year olds voted. Fourth-year environment and business student Mavis Chan hopes to change that number by encouraging higher voter participation among students at the University of Waterloo.

Mavis ChanMavis’ interest in political participation began out of her own passion for climate change and Canada’s poor record on meeting climate change targets over the last few decades. She began thinking of ways to advocate for sounder climate leadership. Her research showed her both that young people care about climate change and the environment, but are not politically active. She was motivated to consider how to get more young people to vote.

She decided to join St. Paul's GreenHouse in the winter of 2014 to explore her ideas about how to encourage higher voter participation among students. “I knew what I was passionate about going into GreenHouse,” Mavis says, “but I didn’t really know how to get started with building on my idea. GreenHouse was super helpful helping me ideate.” Not only did Mavis learn how to adapt and pivot ideas in response to feedback, but she also says the GreenHouse experience gave her the confidence boost to start researching and problem solving.

She looked at why students didn’t vote, and examined campaigns on behavioural change. Her focus groups showed that students did care but that there were complex reasons and barriers to voting. Studies of anti-smoking and anti-gambling campaigns demonstrated the value of group motivation and in-person contact.

Eventually Mavis decided to develop an online peer-to-peer web application, a “Facebook/Tinder for politics,” to motivate students to vote by harnessing the positive power of peer pressure. The platform summarizes relevant policy issues and helps them determine where they stand so that students don’t have to spend time compiling research themselves. It also allows them to find friends with common views and share their stances with whom they wish.

Additionally, before federal, provincial, or municipal elections, students will be encouraged to form and register teams of 5-6 people on the whyvote platform. Teams where all members have completed short opinion surveys will be eligible to win meaningful prizes. Whyvote will take data from students’ opinions on policy and platforms to sell to political parties, media organizations, and polling firms as a way of helping fund the platform.

Mavis is spending this summer on an e-coop term, developing partners for this program, which she plans to pilot on the UWaterloo campus during the Fall 2015 federal election. Participation will be voluntary and there will be no restrictions on the composition of the teams. Students can vote in Waterloo, in their home riding, or in the riding where they spend their co-op term, and still be eligible.

Mavis has considered the argument that students want to be involved in effecting change in non-traditional ways, such as supporting social causes and volunteering, but she says, “It’s important to speak up and make use of the democracy we have here. It’s great that people are showing involvement in other ways -- ways that might even be more powerful than casting a vote -- but the power and influence of our political leaders are still impactful and strong. The way we can communicate what we’re passionate about to our political leaders is through casting a ballot.”

Check out the whyvote facebook page here

Hear Kwame Ansong's podcast with Mavis Chan here.

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