VoteMate.orgVoteMate combats voter apathy and lack of information by connecting voters and candidates.
On May 8, 2017, I sat down across from CBC Radio's Stephen Quinn for an interview on the eve of BC's 2017 election day. We spoke about an election project I'd been working on and wanted to promote, and why I was doing it even though I couldn't yet vote. Among other things, he asked if I ever intended to end up in politics, and I said I didn't know.
I'd spent the last three weeks speaking with reporters at newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels about the project, but speaking with Quinn was special: I'd grown up listening to CBC Radio, and had become used to hearing his voice on the afternoon drive show. Being interviewed is always an adrenaline rush, but being interviewed, in person, by a voice I'd heard nearly my entire life... That was wild.
The project I was there to talk about? A website called VoteMate.org.
Houston? Meet problem.
Canada — and, indeed, much of the West — has had an election turnout problem for decades now. For the last 20 years, voter turnout has hovered around the low sixties, while youth turnout has hovered around the low thirties.
Pretty much any Canadian politician you ask will be for higher voter turnout — In Canada, it's expected of them. Yet somehow, no one's really come up with a fix for the issue.
A few people have tried: CIVIX, a Canadian non-profit focused on youth engagement, runs a programme called Student Vote, which puts parallel elections into schools — The hope being that if students start voting early, even if it's in fake elections, the habit and the knowledge will carry over. Elections Canada (EC) and their provincial counterparts have run similar programmes, and EC especially has worked on making voting itself more accessible. But other than a blip in 2015, the low turnout trend seems to be continuing.
But despite that, low voter turnout is still a problem worth solving. Low turnout means that governments represent fewer sections of the electorate, and become less responsive to the needs and demands of their citizens. Lower turnout is also a symptom of a lack of interest or faith in government and democracy, making both more vulnerable.
Many of the problems we experience today — systemic racism, climate change, the resurgence of fascism — seem to be exacerbated by out-of-touch or slow-to-react legislatures, and a citizenry that feels, perhaps rightly, increasingly removed from their governments.
And thinking about that, I can't help hoping that if we can figured out a way to solve voter turnout, maybe it would help us to address those other problems as well.
Why is turnout so low anyways?
Well, a lot of reasons. You don't have all day, so let's focus on the top one: Momentum.
It turns out the best way to predict whether someone will vote in an election today is whether they voted in the election four years ago. People who vote tend to always vote, and people who abstain tend to always abstain.
So if we want to improve voter turnout, we should focus on improving first-time voter turnout. Hopefully if we can increase that, the second, third, and fourth-time voter turnout will sort itself out.
The first time most people can vote is sometime from ages 18 to 22. In fact, if we lump in the varying election cycles of the different levels of government, that narrows the range down to 18 to 20. (I voted first when I was 18, then again when I was 19, then again when I was 20, so hey, what do you know!) So in our hunt to find the first domino on our way to increasing voter turnout, we need to ask: Why don't young people vote? And what can we do to get the habit started?
According to research done by Elections Canada, the largest perceived cause of low voter turnout amongst youth is young people "not feeling represented", or not seeing policies on issues they care about. This jibes with a lot of what I hear from my young, not particularly politically-engaged, friends.
But "not feeling represented"?? Most of the political parties in Canada have platforms that focus on issues young people care about! Be it the Bloc, Conservative, Liberal, NDP, or Green, they all have policies (for better or worse) on things like healthcare, climate change, and social justice! So where's the rub?
The second largest perceived cause of low voter turnout amongst youth is a "lack of information, understanding, knowledge". This too jibes with what I know from my friends: They don't know what the parties' positions on issues are, nor even how a lot of Canadian democracy works! Most young people I'm friends with feel they should know these things; They just... don't.
And maybe this can explain our confusion about youth "not feeling represented". Of course youth feel like they're not represented, because they don't know all the things the political parties propose that would appeal to them! Politicians and the media have been unsuccessful at communicating their policies with youth, so youth are unaware of extant policies they would care about.
Our takeaway? The best way to increase voter turnout would be to increase youth voter turnout. And the best way to increase youth voter turnout? To help inform youth, in a way that works for them (and hey, for me as well! I'm a youth!) about the policies that appeal to them.
And if we develop a solution that can do that... Well surely we've got something any Canadian could use.
Developing a goddamn solution
One of the places youth do get exposed to political info is social media. Perhaps the most common one (and irritating for me) is Instagram stories, but other major sources include YouTube videos and TikToks.
All three of these tend towards the sensational. And that's not necessarily a bad thing! When Greta Thunberg came to Canada, and again when racial justice protests followed the murder of George Floyd, I saw an engagement in social issues via Instagram stories that I'd never seen before. I saw young people inform themselves and mobilise using social media, and was surprised at how quickly my hitherto disinterested friends became politically engaged.
But I've seen misinformation spread through social media as well. Widely debunked rumours spread through Instagram stories like wildfire, long after the information has been fact-checked and found lacking by credible news outlets. Because young people get so much of their news through social media and the people they follow, what news they know about is highly dependent on the interests of friends and influencers.
But if social media has taught us one useful thing, it's how to keep young people engaged. If it's taught us a second useful thing, it's how to make hard things easy.
Getting informed about politics is difficult. As someone who's obsessed with the news and the political scene, I have to commit hours each day to listening to podcasts and radio, and reading articles, oftentimes while doing other tasks. For someone who's less interested than me, getting up to speed on politics for an election is not just daunting: It's impossible!
Yet young people do spend ludicrous amounts of time on at last one thing every day: Social media! (I freely admit, I'm not an exception to this rule.) And many of the young people I know are absolutely obsessed with things (Pokemon, D&D, all the goddamn words to Hamilton) that must have taken them hundreds, if not thousands of hours to learn! So why not politics?
Well, because politics doesn't (yet) provide the same returns.
When I first began thinking about the voter turnout problem, I knew instinctively that the ease-of-use that exists with social media would have to be a core part of whatever solution I'd develop. The solution would have to compete with social media, and so would have to provide the same stimuli and positive feedback from usage, and would have to have barriers-to-use removed in the same way.
Imagine Katy: She cares about some political issues (healthcare, student debt), but doesn't know anything about the political parties or their platforms. She wants to vote because she knows that's a way she can affect change, but she doesn't know who she wants to vote for. What does she do?
Most political information is disparate and found in different places of the web: On Wikipedia, news websites, and political campaign pages. It's poorly organised, full of spin and unnecessary wordiness. It's not presented in a way that appeals to a young person, nor in a way that's convenient for them.
Putting all that info in one place would already be one hell of an improvement.
Beyond that, placing different types of information in one place (backgrounders on issues, the policies of the parties, and the news and relevant background on each of those policies too) would be useful and would be something that no one had really done before.
Such a source would have to be easy to access, both as a one-time spur-of-the-moment exercise, and as a recurring activity. It would have to both be a quick, one-time guide, and a treasure trove of information for repeat viewing. And, to compete with Instagram and TikTok, it would have to be visually appealing and rewarding to use.
Our solution (at last!)
Alright, we know that one place for all the information someone needs to know about the candidates, the parties, and the platforms would be useful. What form should that take?
Well, making that one place a website would make it easily accessible as a spur-of-the-moment exercise, and making it an app would make return or casual use easier.
Making it a website or app would also allow us to use the already-familiar designs, concepts, and terminology of the social media apps it would be competing against.
So, resolved as I was to build this damn thing, on 25 May, 2016, I registered VoteMate.org.
Side note: When I was looking around for names to call my new project, I asked "Hey, what should I call this dumb election project?" (or something like that) on AskJelly, a Q&A site that Biz Stone (one of the guys who co-founded Twitter) had just launched.
AskJelly was still young back then, and didn't have that many users, so Biz Stone himself spent a lot of time answering users' questions. Including apparently mine, because the next day, I opened my inbox to discover that the co-creator of Twitter himself had suggested I call my website "VoteMate". Among other ideas.
Needless to say, I used the name. I only realised months later that it could be read a second way when a friend heard me mention the name, then turned around and in front of an entire class of high-school students said "VoteMate: Find single Liberals in your area!"
Thanks Biz. (No but seriously, I love the name.)
25 May. That was 349 days from the next provincial election on 9 May, 2017. That date would be my deadline to build a tool that could radically change how people voted.
First I'd have to do some math.
There are 87 electoral districts (or ridings, like most people call 'em) in BC. At the time in 2016, there were two parties with seats in the Legislature — the BC Liberals (government) and the BC NDP (opposition) — and a third party that would likely run the most candidates outside the other two — the BC Greens.
87 ridings times 3 parties running candidates in each, plus maybe an average of two independents or candidates from other, smaller parties in each riding? ~435 candidates the entire election over.
Clearly I couldn't write profiles for every single one of them.
Instead, I elected to ask each candidate (or their team) to write up a profile for me. I decided on a basic set of questions: What's your biography? What's your vision for BC? And what are your policies? I also added sections for contact info, links to social media, and a headshot.
Liaising with 435 candidates' teams to get their profiles though? That still sounded impossible. But if I were designing a website using the ideas of social media for the user, surely I could design a website using the ideas of social media for the content creator!
Pretty much every candidate in an election these days has a Facebook page. Much like supporting higher voter turnout, it's mandatory, and if you don't do it, people start asking questions like "are they serious??". The interface for setting up and maintaining a Facebook page is familiar to every campaign manager and many politicians, so creating something like it for VoteMate profiles was an obvious choice.
With these two insights — that youth need politics as social media, and that campaign managers are Facebook-addicted legends — I began a year of frantic coding...
Hey, it's election time!
On 19 February, 2017 (79 days before Election Day!), I began sending out invite emails to every candidate that had so far declared their candidacy — And had been nice enough to publish an email address on their website or Facebook page.
The response back was immediate: This is exactly what candidates needed.
Candidates are wonderful people. It takes guts to declare yourself for public office, and even more guts to then leave your email address lying out in the open. More than that, it takes a desire to make things better (or stop things getting worse, depending on your philosophy). And if there's one thing that all politicians publicly agree on, it's (once again!) that we need to increase voter turnout.
Oh, and also that signing up for a website made by a cute 15-year-old would be useful for their campaign.
By the end of the campaign period, I'd expected maybe a tenth of all candidates to sign up and add their profiles. But when all was done-and-dusted, over a third had!
"A third of all candidates?" you ask. "Nice, but surely not enough to inform voters!" Well, my friend, you'd be right. But chatting up candidates wasn't all I'd been doing...
Everybody's got a PDF these days
So every party and their uncle has a platform. But only the best parties put their platforms into 90+ page PDFs.
These PDFs are Christmas for people who like flim-flam and an absolute hell for anyone who wants to know what a party's policies are. They're lengthy (that's one problem), full of buzz phrases (that's another), and barely any actual definable policies (bingo!). They also have a lot of grey-scale photos of the party leader playing with children, because that's what the public wants.
Suffice it to say, no one's expected to read a party's 90+ page PDF on how awesome they are.
Except for some poor fool like me who wants to boil the platform down and input it into a hypothetical website that will then put each policy on each easy next to every other party's policy on that issue.
Boil those platforms down, I did:
Okay, the flim-flam's still there. But at least the policies are side by side, sorted by common categories. Massive improvement.
Hey, I saw you on the news!
Well, you would have! With 40 days left until the election, and candidates signing up to add their profiles left, right, and centre, I finally reached out to local newspapers and radio stations to promote the website. And they replied.
A wild next few weeks ensued as outlet after outlet interviewed me: The Tri-City News, CKNW, Breakfast Television. Every day, I checked stats for the site and saw that a dozen more candidates had signed up, and hundreds of voters had used it.
Then came the emails: Teachers told me they were using it to teach their classes about elections and voting; Voters told me they it allowed them to understand the parties' policies like nothing else did.
Of course I couldn't be sure if anyone who wasn't going to vote ended up doing so because of the project. But even so, I decided it was worthwhile doing again.
Three more elections
Since 2017, I've run VoteMate in three elections:
- The 2018 municipal elections in 25 municipalities around Vancouver — 252/769 candidates signed up.
- The 2019 federal election (I ran VoteMate for BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario) — 225 ridings, 228/1391 candidates signed up.
- The 2020 provincial election in BC — 110/332 candidates signed up.
In the federal and provincial elections, I took every main party's platform and scoured it for details of policies. Instead of just copying-and-pasting the flim-flam-filled policies as I did in 2017, I boiled each policy down to its essentials, and carefully categorised them. And I created an onboarding process for every user or even casual visitor to the site, allowing them to decide which issues they cared about so they'd only see the policies they needed to.
Bullet-point form! The way each party's policies were meant to be presented!
With the 2020 BC election happening concurrent with a global pandemic, VoteMate became even more useful. Candidates couldn't come to the door much any more, and voters couldn't go to all-candidates meetings, but everyone could gather online!
I believe VoteMate is critical going into the future.
A volunteer project that doesn't run ads, hosting information about all the candidates and parties in Canadian elections, along with objective information about the issues... That sounds worthwhile.
If possible, I'd like to turn the project into a part-time job. I'm looking into expanding VoteMate into videos, podcasts, and social content to help people understand the issues, the parties, the candidates, and democracy as a whole, and if I can get going on that year-'round, I might be able to get a few people to chuck a couple dollars at it every month on Patreon.
I want to interview experts on each issue, so that above each set of policies on VoteMate, the site can help people understand what policies might work... and what policies wouldn't.
I want to create materials that can be easily shared by young people in the ways that are comfortable to them (hah, to us!). None of that cringey stuff the parties make... No, I'm talking real, useful information, with a youth focus and twist.
I want to help every person in Canada who's eligible to vote in any election — Municipal, provincial, federal — to do so.
That's the plan, anyways.
If you think that plan sounds worthwhile, you can help. Help me achieve my dreams, y'know?
- Buy me a coffee on BuyMeACoffee. Seriously, I need someone to pay for my addiction.
- Share this article, and VoteMate itself. Or sign up so you know when VoteMate's ready for your election!
- If you're interested in funding the project or working with me, reach out. My inbox is always open. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if there's one other thing you can do? Please vote. It's amazing.