In the past two weeks, an amazing development has taken root at university campuses across Canada.

Spurred by comedian Rick Mercer and activist groups LeadNow, Project Democracy and Apathy is Boring, students are holding vote mobs to show that they will be voting in the upcoming federal election. Media coverage of the vote mobs has been slow and grudging, but that doesn’t seem to have dampened the spirits of young voters.

Mercer’s rant was recorded on the day the government fell, March 29, 2011. In it, he said that there were over 3 million eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24 and “as far as the major political parties are concerned, you may as well be dead.” He encouraged young people to get out there and “scare the hell out of the people who run this country”, since only 37% of this group voted in the last election. Mercer has been characteristically humble about his rant, saying that he had no idea young people would react the way they have. Beginning with the University of Guelph, students at over 25 universities have held vote mobs so far. The resulting videos are so fun, positive, and non-partisan that they have provoked both local (London Free Press, Guelph Mercury) and national (CBC, CTV) media attention.

One can’t help but notice the parties’ lack of response to students’ desire to vote this time around. If hundreds of seniors all across the country started mobilizing to vote, it would be front page news. When young people do it, it’s cutesy headlines (“Thanks a heap, Rick Mercer–the students might actually vote” and “Voting-mob mentality has young people running amok” at The Globe and Mail) and skepticism (“Will vote mobs translate into actual votes?”, Toronto Star ). One notable exception: the Toronto Star’s Youth Nation, which profiles candidates under 30 blogging about issues as diverse as renewable energy and social justice.

 

“I’m not sure what a flash mob is but it sounds a bit disconcerting … I don’t know about ‘flash’ or ‘mobs’ but I don’t like the context of either word.” –Conservative MP John Baird


Baird’s comment made many students shake their heads in disbelief. It illustrated the disconnect between federal politicians and youth. Several studies have shown that Canadian youth aren’t disengaged at all; they just participate in different ways and have different values from older adults (check out an article I wrote on youth participation in transportation planning a couple of years ago).

The sole political response to vote mobs has been from the Conservative party, who tried to have a special ballot held at the University of Guelph declared illegal. After the success of their vote mob, over 700 students stood in line for an hour to cast votes on April 13th; special ballots are often held for groups with lower than average turnout, such as students, aboriginals and those with physical disabilities. Elections Canada declared the Guelph special ballot valid, but in order to avoid controversy it said it was stopping all special ballots at universities. The Conservative party had already come under fire on April 3rd for kicking a couple of students out of a rally in London, Ontario, a move that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP leader Jack Layton swiftly criticized (check out the Liberals’ cheeky “Hey Stephen Harper, stop creeping me on Facebook”). The events seem to have lit a fire of passion among students across the country (LeadNow assembled 3600 signatures within 12 hours in an online petition to have the Guelph votes declared valid). But one wonders at the wisdom of cancelling special ballots at universities: way to make voting harder and even more confusing for first-time student voters.

I was at UBC’s vote mob today with about a hundred other students. While the event itself was non-partisan, these images show that there was some interest from the major parties. The Young Liberals of Canada handed out flyers (above right) at the bus loop entering UBC. Conservative candidate Deborah Merideth (Vancouver Quadra) handed out free snacks after the event. And the Green Party’s Adriane Carr (Vancouver Centre) was also on hand (below right).

Young people have been discounted and discredited as lazy, apathetic non-citizens for far too long. They’ve seen the political leaders court seniors, women, families, and immigrant groups while persistently ignoring youth in this and every other election. Issues that matter to youth, like the environment, health care, education, and civil liberties (not to mention public transit), linger on the back burner while tax cuts and deficits dominate the media. It’s about time they took matters into their own hands.

 

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