An increasingly common gambit to get students to vote descended into a fierce and partisan procedural squabble at the University of Guelph on Wednesday. Now, in a bid to prevent similar headaches, Elections Canada has outlawed similar efforts across the country.
On Friday, Elections Canada ruled that 241 votes cast by "special ballot" that the Conservative Party initially sought to have nullified are valid and will be counted. The Tories have agreed with the ruling and withdrawn their complaint.
But the electoral body also ordered all returning officers to refrain from setting up on-campus stations to accept special-ballot votes, eliminating a potentially easy way for students to vote early during their busy final exam period.
As in past years, Anne Budra, the Elections Canada returning officer for Guelph, had set up an on-campus polling station allowing students to cast their votes by special ballot, a system used for groups that are often underrepresented on election day.
Initial reports suggested the Guelph special-ballot station collected 700 votes, but Elections Canada officials later said just 241 were cast, some for Guelph candidates and others for students' home ridings. The Guelph riding is expected to be hotly contested because Liberal MP Frank Valeriote narrowly bested Conservative Gloria Kovach by just 1,788 votes in 2008.
Elections Canada spokesman John Enright said that although Ms. Budra's efforts were "well-intentioned," they were not preauthorized by Elections Canada, nor were the parties given enough warning. Special ballots can still be cast with returning officers.
A few minutes before 5 p.m. on Wednesday, students in snaking, hour-long voting lineups were shocked to see Michael Sona, the communications director for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke and a former member of the Guelph Campus Conservatives, burst into the front foyer of the campus University Centre declaring the polling station illegal, according to accounts from students who described themselves as non-partisan.
"It was a big scene. He seemed aggressive and angry and was quite loud," said student Brenna Anstett, who was voting at the time. "And then he went to make a grab for the ballot box."
Ms. Anstett's fellow student Kevin Bowman said Elections Canada officials at the voting station moved quickly to block the ballot box from Mr. Sona, took him aside, and a heated debate ensued. Voting soon resumed, and the sealed ballot boxes have been returned to Ms. Budra's office.
A request for comment from Mr. Burke's campaign received no response.
Students also said a complaint that partisan materials were allowed near the voting station in violation of the rules was false.
"People were confident [the votes]would be upheld," said Guelph student Yvonne Su. "But I think a lot of us felt very disrespected."
Videos depicting "vote mobs" organized at universities across the country and showing students swarming ballot boxes has sparked hope that their peers, often maligned for voting in low numbers, might also be mobilizing. More than 30 vote mobs have been staged, inspired by a call to arms from comedian Rick Mercer, said Ms. Su, who co-organized two such mobs in Guelph.
The disputed ballots touched off a storm of partisan jousting on the campaign trail on Friday. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said ensuring respect for electoral rules was the party's "sole concern," and denied that his party was trying to suppress student voting at the university.
After a question-and-answer session with students at Sudbury's Collège Boréal, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the incident highlights a pattern of anti-democratic behaviour.
"This is the kind of thing you'd expect, you know, maybe in Egypt or Syria or some country that doesn't know democracy," Mr. Ignatieff said.
With a report from John Ibbitson in Thornhill, Ont.