06/10/2014 06:03 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:08 EDT

I Work in Civic Engagement, But I Don't Know How to Vote

Daniel Grill via Getty Images

I live in Toronto, in the riding of Trinity-Spadina, which means that in the next six months I'll have three elections to vote in -- the Ontario provincial election, a federal by-election, and the Toronto election in which I'll vote both for the mayor and a city councilor.

It's very colourful in my neighbourhood right now. People are engaged and their lawns are filled with signs in Orange, Red, Green and a little Blue (it is downtown Toronto after all) -- sometimes all on one lawn!

Now here comes my confession: I don't know how to vote. In any of these elections.

It's embarrassing because I really love politics. I talk about it all the time. I mean, I work at Samara, an organization that works to strengthen political participation in Canada. I literally (and I mean literally in the actual literal sense) spend my whole day working on civic engagement.

How could this happen to me?

See, here's the thing: voting is simple. You receive a voter card in the mail and you walk over to your voting station with a piece of ID. Easy Shmeezy. If you don't receive a voter card, just bring anything -- a piece of ID or even a utility bill with your name and address on it. No problem-o.

Unless of course, you don't have any ID or bills with your address on them.

Being under 34 I am, by Elections Canada's standards, a "young voter." Like many of my friends, my living situation is semi-regularly in flux. Due to travelling, attending different universities and various other factors, I've moved six times in the last four years. To avoid constantly changing my ID, I use my parents' address on everything. Also, I don't have an official lease because my friend manages the house I live in for a landlord who lives in Florida. Also, all the bills are under this friend's name, so none of them can be used as proof that I live where I live. This, I now realize, is a problem.

I understand the need to protect the integrity of our voting system. Of course we want to make sure that it isn't easy for people to vote multiple times, or to vote outside of their riding in order to influence results in their party-of-choice's favour. But I also understand that youth are voting at lower rates than ever in our history which, along with other factors, is driving down voter turnout to just over 60 per cent. That also threatens the integrity of our democracy.

As I've learned from my colleagues at Samara, the millennial lifestyle challenges "politics-as-usual" in many ways. When it comes to campaigning and elections, we are hard to reach--- telephone polls don't target cell phones and most of us don't have landlines, we aren't home during the hours that volunteers usually knock on doors, and we are buying homes at older ages or not at all. Canadian democracy hasn't exactly caught up with us.

It has however caught up with me, in a frustrating sort of way. So, I spent the last week trying to find out how to vote at all three levels of government.

Here's how it went down:

Provincial Election

The Elections Ontario website is surprisingly simple and helpful. There are a number of questions for visitors to click through such as, "Am I on the Voters List?" and "Where do I vote?" I searched around for "What-should-I-do-if-I-don't-have-anything-with-my-address-because-I-am-a-vagrant-young-adult-who-really-likes-politics-and-isnt-trying-to-commit-voter-fraud?" but unfortunately, it wasn't there.

Luckily, Elections Ontario makes it very easy to find their phone number, so I picked up my phone and called:

"Hi, I'd like to vote in the upcoming election, but I don't have any photo ID with my current address, what should I do?"

"Well there are a lot of IDs that might work, let me get my list --"

"No, sorry, I've read the list, but none of my ID includes my current address"

"No problem. You can use any sort of bill that comes to your house."

"I don't have any bills with my name on them."

"How about your lease?"

"I don't exactly have what you might call a formal lease"

"...Can I put you on hold?"

After a bit of a wait I was told to look up a form called "Certification of Identity and Residence" which could be signed by my landlord, or the friend from whom I sublet to verify my address. I thanked the man on the phone and excitedly went to search for the form.

I couldn't find it.

Google took me to a similar form...for residents of Saskatchewan. By this time, I was a little bit frustrated. I am lucky that, given the subject matter, I was permitted to conduct this research at work. Otherwise, to be honest, I might have given up.

The next day I called Elections Ontario again, and asked for help finding the "Certification of Identity and Residence" form. The woman on the phone told me that form was intentionally made to be difficult to find.

That seemed both annoying and strange.

She then told me that, in fact, it is a form that is sent out to shelters and other service-providers to make sure that folks who really do not have permanent addresses are able to vote. It seems I was told about this form in error. In truth, I was happy to hear that such a process exists. It didn't, however, help my cause very much.

We talked a bit more and then, after being put on hold a couple of more times, it finally happened. I got my answer. I could have either my landlord or the friend from whom I sublet write up a lease agreement and sign it. That, along with a piece of government-issued photo ID will allow me to vote. "Does it need to be notarized?" I asked. It does not.

Federal By-Election

The easiest of all. Elections Canada has a very simple website that provides three options for voters. Option three applied to me. All I need to do is bring along a friend who lives in my riding and has correct identification, then we both take an oath that I live in the riding. This process is called vouching, and the rules around it will change once the Fair Elections Act, a bill that was recently passed in the House of Commons, goes into effect.

Municipal Election

This one was the most fun, because I think I might have actually been the very first person in the whole city of Toronto to call with a question about the upcoming election.

I explained my situation to the woman who answered the phone. She then asked, "Are you calling about the provincial elections?" "No", I said, "the municipal one." "You know it isn't until October, right?" "Yes," I said, "I like to be prepared."

This conversation progressed very similarly to my conversation with Elections Ontario. As I explained that none of the options she presented would work for me, she actually seemed quite flustered, and began to strongly suggest that I reconsider my life choices or face the consequences and vote in my parents' riding.

She then said she needed to do some research and would call me back, and at the end of the day she did. It turns out that my requirements for the municipal election will be the same as those I need for the provincial election -- a formal letter from my landlord or the friend who manages our house that verifies my current address. I don't even need to bring photo ID.

"It's really very important that you vote where you live," the woman on the phone told me. I agreed. If I had to be lectured about my life choices by anyone, I'm happy it was someone as nice as her.

So that was it. It took two days, four phone calls and some internet research, but I finally learned how to vote.

Here's my "How to Vote" advice for nomadic-people-whose-landlords-are-a-bit-informal-and-who-don't-have-any-official-mail-with-their-addresses-on-it-or-anyone-else-who-doesn't-fit-the-voting-requirements-mould:

  • For provincial and municipal (Toronto) elections get a signed, formal-looking note from a landlord, or the person to whom you currently pay rent that corroborates your current address.
  • For federal by-elections make sure to vote with someone who lives in your riding, has their correct ID, and is willing to swear that you live where you live.

There you go. Many thanks to all the kind elections representatives who spend their days teaching people how to vote. Please share this information widely, democracy needs us!