'Vote mobs' shake up election

A comment by an incumbent MP about how the term flash mob seemed "disconcerting" left student organizers shaking their heads on Wednesday.
A YouTube video shows students from the University of Guelph unfurling a banner that reads, Surprise! We are voting! (YouTube) (Youtube.com)

A comment by a sitting MP about how the term flash mob seemed "disconcerting" left student organizers shaking their heads on Wednesday.

Asked about a recent University of Guelph flash mob that took place at a Conservative campaign event, Conservative MP John Baird told reporters on Tuesday, "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."

For several university students and community organizers, Baird's comment elicited a chuckle, but also raised a larger issue present in the federal election campaign: a disconnect between politicians from all political parties and the young electorate.

"I think it reflects the fact that the parties aren't paying enough attention to young voters or young people in general," said Jamie Biggar, executive director of Leadnow.ca, a site aimed at engaging voters. "They're a little out of touch with what's going on with them and what they're interested in."

Gracen Johnson, a co-organizer of the so-called "vote mob" in Guelph, said perhaps there might be an easy solution: "Maybe he needs to go on YouTube more often!"

Flash mobs have gone mainstream in recent years, taking place in Toronto and around the world. The term refers to large groups who organize on the internet and suddenly gather in a public place to dance or do an unusual performance before just as suddenly dispersing. A video is usually posted on YouTube documenting the event.

Such gatherings are typically organized for the sheer fun of it, but so-called "vote mobs" appear to have made their debut in the 41st general election campaign.

Monday's vote mob at University of Guelph, also dubbed a "surprise party" by organizers, inspired organizers at about a half a dozen universities across the country to create similar events over the next week.

At least 200 attended the gathering in Guelph outside a Conservative Party campaign event. A YouTube video shows young people running out of the bush then unfurling a banner that says, "Surprise! We are voting!" Controversy arose after at least one participant was reportedly not allowed inside the campaign event because he was believed to be a protester.

A fun, happy event: organizer

Students insist the 'vote mobs' are strictly non-partisan and are not intended as protest. Instead, the goal is to counter a belief that youth are not politically engaged — and to make politicians take notice of their young constituents.

"We're using this as our platform to say: 'Hey! Pay attention to us! We have an opinion and we are going to vote,'" says Jessica McCormick, director of external affairs at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Students' Union, which is planning a vote mob this weekend.

Inspiration for the first vote mob in Guelph came from CBC comedian Rick Mercer's recent rant calling on young people to "do the unexpected" and vote, says Johnson. Voter turnout among youth is consistently dismal. In the 2008 federal election, only 37 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 cast a ballot.

Johnson said she's glad to have inspired copycat "vote mobs" across the country. "It's exactly what we set out to do," she said.

The Guelph organizer, who has used flash mobs in past awareness campaigns, says the playful gatherings add something playful to an election campaign dominated by negativity and attack ads.

"It's great to be able to insert something that's fun and youthful and happy," said Johnson.

James Coccola, who helped organize a vote mob at University of Victoria on Wednesday, said the events will also help them reach their ultimate goal of getting the vote out.

"People are going to recognize people in this video," he said. "It's going to be their friends. It's going to be people in their community. [They'll think] 'Oh, I know them. I go to class with them. I'm excited that they're excited.'"