10/18/2015 10:18 EDT | Updated 10/18/2016 05:12 EDT

What Canadian Voters Actually Care About

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Not to brag, but working at Canada is a lot of fun. Every week, we get to see the 200 or so petitions Canadians start on all sorts of topics, giving us a good sense of what matters most to people, and why. Throw in an election campaign that has everyone thinking more deeply about what kind of country they want, and suddenly you've got over 160 election-related petitions accounting for over 1.2 million signatures, and counting -- it's like having our own RSS feed that could be called "What Voters Actually Care About."

Changing Policy

It came as no surprise to us that many of the most important electoral issues are at the center of conversations playing out on Our election hub, Change #Elxn42, shows that some of the biggest trending petitions speak to the top issues the party leaders are taking on: clean energy, pharmacare, Syrian refugees, missing and murdered indigenous women, and Canada Post, to name just a few.

In 2015, when an issue matters to a lot of people, they will mobilize using online tools that were unavailable even five years ago -- everyday people can get organized to effect meaningful change around the big questions of the day.

But things get even more interesting when we look at some the lower profile electoral issues that are gaining traction through petitions. If a problem isn't getting much attention on the campaign trail, online petitions are proving to be an effective way to get a candidate's attention.

An example: Sarah Gilbert of Chilliwack, B.C. is the coast guard captain's granddaughter trying to convince the government to re-open the Kitsilano Coast Guard Base. It's not the kind of issue that dominates the electoral discourse, and in years past would likely have gone undressed. But Sarah has mobilized over 10,000 supporters online, and has received direct responses on her petition from Thomas Mulcair, Elizabeth May and Justin Trudeau.

This bodes well for the promise of politics in the digital age: because Canadians are able to mobilize online effectively, issues that may never have made it on to the news or in party platforms are nonetheless getting some attention -- and some commitments -- from candidates vying for the job of Prime Minister.

Changing the system

Here's yet another inspiring and exciting trend we weren't really expecting: Canadians are increasingly turning to online activism to try to change or affect the political and electoral process itself.

While the new Elections Act doesn't allow Elections Canada to promote voting among youth, that hasn't stopped young Canadians from finding innovative ways to take up challenge of encouraging their peers to vote. Karilynn Ming Ho of Vancouver has taken a novel approach. Her #DrakeTheVote campaign asks Toronto-born rap superstar Drake to film a short video encouraging young people to vote. She's asking: "Drake, will you 'Make Us Proud' and get Canadian youth out to vote?" With over 8500 supporters and some growing media attention, she just might convince him to do it. And could have a lasting impact: one of the keys to being a life-long voter is starting early.

Others campaigns include asking celebrities to tweet pro-voting messages, suggesting the voting age should be lowered to 16, calling for a youth issues debate and asking youth to pledge to vote. The sheer volume of online activity around this campaign debunks the idea that young people are disengaged -- they may be non-partisan, but they are certainly not apathetic.

That's not to say that petitioning to change the system is only for 18-34-year-olds: there are a dozen petitions addressing the frequency or structure of election debates, there's a popular petition to ban wasteful elections signs, one to establish digital voting, one to reform the Senate appointment method, and dozens more addressing democratic reform or cooperation among opposition parties.

Big issues, small issues, national issues, local issues, and issues that speak to the very heart of our democracy: Canadians are going online to engage politicians in new and interesting ways, with impressive results. And there's a trend that's only just begun.


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