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Eby guns for Point Grey student vote despite May election date

David Eby is looking to oust Premier Christy Clark from Vancouver-Point Grey this election, but a May 14 election date -- weeks after many potential voters in the University of British Columbia-dominated riding clear out for the summer -- isn't making that easy, he reckons.

"I'm incredibly disappointed with the way the fixed date election system disenfranchises students as a group," Eby, the BC NDP candidate for the riding, told The Tyee. "We need to be reducing barriers to voting; we don't need to be building them, and unfortunately with the student populations that's exactly what we've done."

UBC is currently in the throes of its exam period, a time when students have their noses in the books, not politics. Tanner Bokor, the university's student union vice-president of external affairs, estimated that by the time the election rolls around, the campus population will be cut in half.

"It's not an ideal situation, and not having students on campus will be to the detriment of the election," Bokor said.

That's why Eby has been getting on campus to campaign early -- months early. With a team of "10 hardcore volunteers," seven of whom are current full-time students, his team is pushing students to register and get informed on how to vote no matter where they end up once school is finished.

Low turnout among the province's youngest eligible voters is nothing new. Only one-third of the 20-24 year-old age group cast a ballot in the last three general elections.

In the 2009 general election, just over 56 per cent of registered voters in Vancouver-Point Grey headed to the polls. But the turnout of registered voters at four key polling stations located near UBC's residences was less than one-quarter.

In a hot riding like Vancouver-Point Grey, politically engaged students could make all the difference. And candidates know it.

"I think candidates are understanding that students are a huge influence on this election, and that they really need to engage them in order to really sway the election in their favour," Bokor said.

He's seen a boost in candidate presence on campus since the last election, particularly among the B.C. Greens and the NDP. The Liberals are starting up their campaigning, too. The Tyee contacted Clark's communications spokesperson for comment, but did not hear back by publication.

While students may prove powerful in their numbers, their potential participation should not be seen as an assumed boost to any one party, said Norman Ruff. The political scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Victoria warns against categorizing any one demographic as a "monolith" with similar interests.

"One shouldn't assume that students are overwhelmingly NDP or overwhelmingly Green," he said.

What can influence students to head to the polls is whether or not they believe their vote counts, said Ruff. That makes Vancouver-Point Grey a conundrum, seeing as the NDP has a significant lead in the polls but the riding saw a 564-vote split between the Liberals and the NDP in the 2011 byelection.

Bokor agrees there's no clear winner at this point. For now, he's focused on getting students to vote, as is Eby.

"Absolutely the students are powerful enough to swing the vote in any direction," said Eby. "The question is whether or not they will."

Natascia Lypny is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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