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Today I showed my students the Hands Off My Ballot site, and I explained to them what happened at the University of Guelph on Wednesday.  If you missed it, here’s the short version:

In order to encourage students to vote in the upcoming federal election, a special polling station was put up in the student centre of the University of Guelph (incidentally, the school where I completed my Hons. BA).  Students waited patiently in line to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to freely and democratically cast their ballots and have their say in the running of their country.  Similar stations have been made in past elections in the student centre.

While students were casting their votes, Michael Sona, the communications director for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke, attempted to single-handedly stop voting.  He claimed that Elections Canada had told him the station was illegal, and at one point he attempted to grab at the Elections Canada ballot box.  The Conservatives are clinging to the excuse that they merely wanted a scrutineer present, but I have yet to see a legitimate news source that supports this.

I explained to my students that the online petition was posted to encourage people to defend the rights of University of Guelph students to have their ballots counted.  And I explained to them the danger of anything less than full acceptance of all cast votes.

Let’s be honest for a minute: this is a planned, calculated, dirty, nasty, underhanded move by a Conservative supporter.  This riding is a closely contested one, and U of G is a shamelessly left-leaning school.  And with 20,000 students, it has more than enough sway to change the ownership of the seat.  This has nothing to do with monitoring election protocol and everything to do with a desperate grab to put his candidate in power.  Sona’s claim that he was told that the station was illegal by Election Canada in no way authorized him to go and try to shut down the station, much less walk out with the ballot box, and he undermined the basic substance of democracy by attempting to stop the vote.

Thankfully, the votes have been deemed valid and Sona’s action has been widely denounced.

But not by Stephen Harper.

Or by the Conservative Party of Canada.

There is the usual political, legalistic doublespeak that you’ll find on any political website, but at no point is there anything that addresses the disturbing undermining of democracy that Marty Burke’s campaign team perpetrated.

I felt a moral obligation to warn my students that there are already attempt being made against their future rights to vote.  I reminded them that it is entirely possible that some of them will be participating in the next federal election as eighteen-year-old voters, the same age as many of those being attacked by the Conservative party.  The term “slippery slope” came up a lot.

Then one of the kids asked me the dreaded question:

“Mr. Stirling, who will you be voting for?”

While I don’t believe in teachers pretending to be politically neutral (it’s disingenuous and condescending to the students), I have never directly expressed my political leaning to any of my students.  I tell them that I don’t discuss my choice to keep from directing them to a particular political school of thought, but that I do exercise my right to vote at every election.

Today I offered a caveat:

“I won’t say what party I’m voting for, but I will tell you that I won’t vote for a party that doesn’t outright denounce attacks on voters’ rights.  I will not support any party that is unwilling to cut itself off from members that take vigilante measures to try to influence election results.  I would consider the Conservative party and Stephen Harper alongside all other legitimate parties and leaders if they had addressed this incident squarely on the side of democracy and freedom, but they are not doing that.”

I’m not a political activist, a party supporter, or even a particularly civic person, but I can’t stomach the idea that such an attack against democracy could ever be carried out, much less brushed off by a major political party in Canada.  It worries me.  It sickens me.  It makes me wonder what my daughter will face when she lines up at the polls for her first election.  And maybe that makes me sound like an alarmist, but greater erosions of liberty have come from lesser events than this.

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