Student-led social media campaigns to get out the vote have spurred hope of a mass mobilization across the country. But there is equal realism, often voiced in the same breath, that the clash in timing between three days of advance polls over Easter weekend, a May 2 vote and the hectic end of university and college school years will undercut the enthusiasm on display.
By most estimates, well over a million students are eligible to vote, but less than 45 per cent chose to in 2008. Particularly in ridings that are home to campuses and student housing, a surge of student votes could be expected to tilt the results of close races.
But campuses are getting emptier by the day, suggesting any student effect will be spread and diluted across Canada.
"May 2 is possibly the worst Monday of the year for students to get out and vote," said Simon Tunstall, campaign manager for Kitchener-Waterloo Liberal candidate Andrew Telegdi, echoing officials from several other campaigns.
Students have grabbed headlines by posting dozens of online videos of "vote mobs," with crowds of tens or hundreds at a time storming campus hubs to raise election awareness. But many politicians agree it has still been a challenge getting students' attention - some are still feverishly writing exams, those who have finished are moving out in droves, and others plan to disappear for Easter weekend.
The University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, with a combined 47,000 students, are both in the Kitchener-Waterloo riding, which Conservative Peter Braid won by just 17 votes in 2008. The nearby Kitchener Centre riding also went blue, by only 339 votes.
But candidates hoping a surge of student votes will push them over the top could find themselves disappointed. Exams at Waterloo ended Thursday, and the school has been emptying fast. About 5,000 students in residence had to move out 24 hours after their last exam, and bus tickets out of town have been selling quickly on campus.
Third-year Wilfrid Laurier student Nicole Vasey, 20, is one of several who told The Globe and Mail they would vote "wherever I am at that time," and most will not be in Kitchener-Waterloo.
When Ann Simpson, manager of Waterloo's Student Life Centre, warned an Elections Canada official that turnout at a planned campus voting station was bound to be low, the official replied that she told polling staff to bring books to read. Bud Walker, an assistant provost at Waterloo, agreed the "vast majority" of students will have left by Friday's advance poll, but noted some 8,000 co-op students return for the summer on May 2.
Last week, an Elections Canada officer set up an on-campus polling station at the University of Guelph where students could register and cast a "special ballot," which allows them to choose whether their votes will count in the Guelph riding or in their home ridings. Many will have left Guelph before national advance polls on Friday, Saturday and Monday. But Conservative Party complaints over whether the votes were valid led to Elections Canada outlawing further campus special-ballot stations.
"It's unfortunate," said Alexandria Mitchell, 18, a student and co-organizer of a vote mob at the University of British Columbia. "We were really hoping to have a [special-ballot]booth."
Exams run until the end of April at UBC. Jeremy McElroy, president of the school's Alma Mater Society, estimates a third to half of the school's 55,000 students could still be in Vancouver for Easter weekend. Liberal Ujjal Dosanjh won Vancouver South - a riding with many student residents from UBC, Simon Fraser University and Langara College - by only 20 votes in 2008.
In Ontario's Welland riding, Conservative candidate Leanna Villella has encouraged student supporters to vote locally and early, campaign manager Tony Quirk said. The riding is home to more than 25,000 students at Brock University and Niagara College, and the NDP won it by 300 votes last time. A Brock spokesman said 70 per cent of the school's students come from outside the region, and most head home by Easter weekend.
Wherever students vote, the impression that the turnout will be higher than usual persists, largely thanks to the recent social media blitz.
"This year, there seems to be a kind of electric feeling among the youth," said Dhananjai Kohli, 24, a vote mob organizer at the University of Toronto Mississauga, which has 11,000 students and sits in closely contested Mississauga-Erindale.
Many student organizers agree. But to ensure the hype translates into actual votes, they are trying to make doing one's duty fun: Some schools are organizing "voter socials," shuttling groups of students to the polls by bus, then to celebrate at a local bar, while at Guelph, students are encouraged to invite a friend on a "vote date."
Ms. Mitchell, thinks the vote mobs represent a movement with "a different feel to it," but refuses to guess its effects.
"The youth vote is kind of elusive," she said. "It could entirely turn the election upside down, or it could stay the same."