By Louise Egan
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Wearing neon colors, dancing and flashing "I vote" signs for video cameras, students in Canada's capital on Monday joined a growing movement of youth "vote mobs" aimed at shaking up the May 2 national election.
The flash rally at Carleton University in Ottawa was the latest in a series of events on campuses across the country aimed at mobilizing first-time voters and challenging the notion that youth don't care about politics.
"We're here and we're loud and we'll definitely go out and vote," said Meera Chander, a 25-year-old law student who helped organize the rally.
The impromptu "vote mobs" are boisterous, colorful events during which students run around campuses, sing, dance and shout, waving signs and Canadian flags. The events are taped and uploaded on to YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites.
The numbers are not always big -- only about 40 showed up at Carleton despite some 400 who pledged to do so on Facebook -- but organizers say the idea is for their message to go viral online. The message is simply to vote and doesn't support any one candidate or party.
"These videos are created ... and they go to thousands of thousands of people. Social media has played such a huge role in these elections," Chander said.
Only 37 percent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 showed up to vote in the 2008 election, Elections Canada estimates.
The "vote mob" movement was inspired by well-known political comedian Rick Mercer who challenged youth to get more involved.
The University of Guelph, west of Toronto, was the first to take up the challenge by mobilizing a large crowd on April 4 and greeting Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a visit with a huge banner that said "Surprise! We are voting!"
Youth-led advocacy group LeadNow.ca has eight different vote mob videos on its website, and says dozens more are planned (http://leadnow.ca/en/vote-mobs).
Harper's Conservative Party, which polls show winning the election, has been involved in at least two embarrassing incidents involving students. The Conservatives tried to disqualify votes made on the Guelph campus in a special ballot, on the grounds electoral laws were broken. Election authorities later said the votes were valid.
Earlier in the campaign, a student was evicted from a Conservative rally because her Facebook profile showed her with Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff.
Skeptics say the vote mob phenomenon is charming, but not proof of a new political effervescence among youth.
The Ottawa students are hoping to prove them wrong. But it may be a tough task. Their rally on Wednesday disbanded over an hour before two local candidates were scheduled to appear to take students' questions.
Organizers blamed the cold weather and exams.
"It's not really about how many people came out today, it's really about translating that into people at the polls," said Kristen Gilchrist, a PhD student and activist.
(Reporting by Louise Egan; editing by Peter Galloway)