Elections Canada has declared that disputed votes in a special ballot at the University of Guelph were cast legitimately.
In a statement, the electoral body said: "All information at our disposal indicates that the votes were cast in a manner that respects the Elections Canada Act and are valid."
But the statement also notes that the special-ballot polling station, set up Wednesday by local Elections Canada returning officer Anne Budra to encourage students to vote, "was not pre-authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer," and that all returning officers have been instructed "not to engage in any further activities of a similar nature."
In a letter to the office of the Chief Electoral Officer, Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton demanded that all votes cast on campus by students be declared null and void. Mr. Hamilton alleged that the polling station had not been sanctioned by Elections Canada, that partisan materials were present "in the polling location and indeed immediately proximate to the location of the ballot box," and that a scrutineer had been excluded from supervising.
In response to the Elections Canada ruling, the Conservative Party released a statement saying "we applaud the decision not to disenfranchise University of Guelph students because of errors by the local Returning Officer. These student voters should not suffer because of mistakes by the local election officials."
Special ballots are set up as a way of facilitating the voting process for groups that are often underrepresented on voting day. Charles Cunningham, director of communications at the University of Guelph, said special ballots have been held on the school's campus "two or three times before."
Under the Elections Canada Act, voters may apply for and vote by special ballot through any returning officer. But Elections Canada said initiatives to set up special balloting stations "are expected to be planned well ahead of the election."
Mr. Hamilton's letter says Pierre Boutet of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer assured Mr. Hamilton that "no advance poll or other form of polling had been sanctioned by Elections Canada for any location at the University of Guelph that day." But an advance poll is different from a special ballot, and special ballots do not necessarily need express authorization.
Ms. Burdra told the Guelph Mercurty earlier this week that the special ballot was well-attended, and Elections Canada said it collected 241 votes. Ms. Budra set up the station because many of the university's students will not be in Guelph for advanced polls on Apr. 22, 23 and 25, or on election day. The Elections Canada statement described her actions as "well-intentioned."
The station was set up about 10 metres inside the main doors of the campus University Centre, a bustling hub that features food outlets, booths promoting campus groups, study space and offices, according to one observer. Lineups snaked around the Centre's atrium as students waited more than an hour on average to cast ballots.
Guelph student Brenna Anstett, who describes herself as non-partisan, was at the ballot station casting her vote around 5 p.m. on Wednesday when a man she identifies as Michael Sona, the communications director for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke, attempted to stop voting claiming that Elections Canada had told him the station was illegal.
"He was making a commotion, it was a big scene. He seemed aggressive and angry, and was quite loud," she said. "He went to make a grab for the ballot box. He didn't have it in his hands at all that I recall. One of the Elections Canada officers intervened and kind of held on to the box."
The Conservative Party denies that any of its supporters on the local Marty Burke campaign touched a ballot box.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff characterized the incident as yet another example of Stephen Harper's worrying attitude toward democracy. He predicted that the "drip, drip" of democracy-related stories - including the student who was kicked out of a Conservative rally because she had a photo of Mr. Ignatieff on her Facebook page - will ultimately turn the tide in the campaign.
"This is part of a pattern," Mr. Ignatieff said. "First you have a prime minister who checks the Facebook page of people coming to his meetings ... then you have a Conservative operative trying to grab a ballot box at a university in a town where precisely that's the place where students were mobilizing to get out the vote."
Mr. Harper denied that his party was trying to suppress student voting at the university.
"Our concern is simply that the rules for advance polling - that all of the rules of the election - be respected," he told reporters. "That is our sole concern."
He added that the Conservatives encouraged all Canadians, regardless of age or region or background, to vote.
Ramzi Nashef, a Liberal party volunteer who was at the University Centre, disputed Mr. Hamilton's claims that there were partisan materials near the voting station. He said Liberal and Green Party officials were initially told Elections Canada was considering the entire University Centre as the voting station, and that both parties distributed campaign literature about 200 metres away from the building.
The Elections Canada official then returned to tell them a new ruling had declared the entire campus should be free of partisan materials during voting, and both parties returned all their materials to their offices, Mr. Nashef said.
All four parties also had one campaign sign installed in the plaza behind the University Centre, in accordance with university rules.
Reacting to the Elections Canada decision, Mr. Ignatieff called the Conservative actions a "disgrace."
"This is the kind of thing you'd expect, you know, maybe in Egypt or Syria or some country that doesn't know democracy," he said, following a question and answer session with students at Sudbury's Collège Boréal. "They were lining up to vote, some of them waited two hours to vote, and then some Conservative heavies come in and had a literal grab at the ballot box, and then they launch a frivolous complaint to get 700 young peoples' votes disbarred. I mean, I'm just telling you the facts, but they're a disgrace."
Mr. Ignatieff repeated his view that the episode highlights a pattern of behaviour in which the Conservatives don't respect democracy, pointing to the case earlier in the campaign when a student who was asked to leave a Conservative event because she had a photo of Mr. Ignatieff on her Facebook page.
"This party is showing persistent contempt for democracy and it's more serious than that," he said. "It is a conscious strategy of what you'd call vote suppression: Keep them away from the polls, drive them away from the polls."