The elections office in Quebec is throwing cold water on a theory put forward by the Parti Québécois on Sunday that students from elsewhere in Canada could be trying to steal the provincial election.
The PQ expressed concern about media reports that an influx of English-speakers and other non-francophones from outside the province were trying to vote in the April 7 election.
'We don't want this election stolen by people from Ontario and the rest of Canada.' - Bertrand St-Arnaud, Justice Minister
By late Sunday afternoon, however, the province's chief electoral officer brought forward numbers showing there were no signs of an irregular increase in voter registration.
"The abnormally high number of requests doesn't exist," said spokesman Denis Dion.
Still, the PQ's strong language meant the controversy dominated Day 19 of the campaign.
- Quebec election: PQ worried 'people from rest of Canada' will decide outcome
One PQ candidate at the news conference, justice minister Bertrand St-Arnaud, called on the province's chief electoral officer to closely examine new attempts to register to vote.
"We don't want this election stolen by people from Ontario and the rest of Canada," St-Arnaud said in Montreal.
Quebec voters only, please: Bureau-Blouin
Another party candidate, former student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin, added he wants to make sure the election is decided by Quebecers.
Scroll down to the bottom of this story to read the Chief Electoral Officer's rules on 'domicile' and voter registration.
"We are concerned by the fact that many, many people who are not registered on the list want to be registered," said Bureau-Blouin, who in the past has made increasing voter participation among youth a priority.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois raised her own concerns later in the day.
There have been numerous media reports lately of English-speaking university students trying to register to vote. Some students complained they were turned away even though they believed they had the necessary documentation.
While Quebec's English-language media has generally focused on those cases, French-language counterparts have sometimes presented the issue differently — as an effort by students from outside Quebec to influence the outcome of the election.
The PQ's St-Arnaud said he found a report in Sunday's Le Journal de Montreal particularly troubling. It described an attempt by "hundreds of Ontario students" to vote against PQ leader Pauline Marois.
The parent company of Le Journal de Montreal, Quebecor, was founded by the family of Pierre Karl Péladeau, a star candidate who is running for the PQ in the election.
Péladeau stepped aside as Quebecor's CEO last year and when he announced his candidacy this month he said he would place his ownership stake in the company in a blind trust and insisted his media outlets would maintain independent coverage.
Mathieu Vandal resigns
The story from Le Journal de Montreal came after Mathieu Vandal, the head of the election revision board for a downtown Montreal riding, resigned on Friday and went public with concerns that an increased number of non-francophones were attempting to register and weren't being adequately screened.
Dion said there had been an increase in attempts by out-of-province students to register in some ridings, but that Vandal's comments were "alarmist" and had "exaggerated" the situation.
He said the issue was further complicated because some officials didn't understand the registration rules.
That may be why a number of English-speaking students have come forward to complain they were unfairly denied the right to vote.
In one case, a McGill PhD student said he was turned away even though he has lived here since 2008 and only takes three weeks vacation a year from his lab work.
Sean Beatty, a 31-year-old from British Columbia, was so frustrated he secretly recorded an exchange with elections officials and post it online, where it quickly made the rounds on social media.
PhD student 'denied' right to vote
Beatty said he has voted previously in a federal election in Quebec, and was compelled to register in the provincial election this time because he disagrees with the PQ's proposed charter of values.
"I'm really disturbed by the way the process is set up, the idea that someone can deny you the right to vote without requesting any additional documentation or having an appeal process," Beatty said in an interview.
'I'm really disturbed by the way the process is set up, the idea that someone can deny you the right to vote without requesting any additional documentation or having an appeal process.' - Sean Beatty, PhD student
Beatty said he presented his passport and utility bills and that he has previously filed taxes in Quebec, though he has still has a British Columbia health card.
Beatty posted the audio recording of his exchange with officials at the revision board online.
In one portion, a man tells Beatty he "has a doubt," that the PhD student meets the provincial requirements and that is why he is not eligible to be added to the list.
Later, a female official at the revision board tells Beatty that his passport and other documents aren't sufficient to prove "residency" there have been hundreds of cases like his before revision boards in Montreal.
- Listen to the official talk about 'hundreds all over Montreal,' who are in the same situation
- Listen to the official address the documentation issue
The recording was made without the knowledge of the revision board officials and they are not identified.
To register in Quebec, Dion said a voter must be a Canadian citizen and have lived in Quebec for six months. They must also have the intention of making Quebec their home, a term that's open to interpretation.
Dion said officials also take into account other evidence, such as proof of a bank account in a Quebec institution, a Quebec health insurance card or driver's licence, or a Quebec income tax return.
The PQ's strong stance on the voting controversy recalled complaints in the aftermath of the failed 1995 referendum, when federalists were accused of taking unfair measures to boost the No vote.
Rival parties have so far avoided talking up the controversy. Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and François Legault, head of the Coalition party, both said they would leave the issue up to the chief electoral officer.