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As ballots are counted, some Conservatives criticize complicated ranked-ballot voting system, party to review leadership election rules in post-mortem

By Abbas Rana, Laura Ryckewaert      

The crowded field of candidates and the complicated voting system confused a lot of Conservative Party members, say some Conservatives. The party will review what worked and what didn’t once the convention is over.

Who will win: Conservative leadership candidates Chris Alexander, Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer, Erin O'Toole, Lisa Raitt, Andrew Saxton, Michael Chong, Brad Trost, and Deepak Obhrai, pictured in this file photo. Missing from the photo are Steve Blaney, Pierre Lemieux, Kellie Leitch, and Rick Peterson. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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TORONTO CONGRESS CENTRE—The Conservative Party needs to reconsider its complicated leadership election rules for future leadership conventions, say some Conservatives, including returning to delegated conventions, making arrangements in most ridings for party members to able to vote in-person, and ensure the field of candidates is not as large as it was this time.

“It needs to be reviewed,” said Kerry-Lynne Findlay, former National Revenue minister in the Stephen Harper cabinet, in an interview with The Hill Times. “One improvement would have been to have in-person voting throughout the country, at least in every major region.”

Ms. Findlay, who represented the British Columbia riding of Delta-Richmond East from 2011 to 2015, said only 13 ridings across the country made the arrangements for party members to cast their votes in-person. She said this should have been made available in all 338 or at least most ridings.

Along with polling stations at the convention, 13 other polls were set up across Canada at which the 259,010 party members eligible to vote could cast their ballots in person on May 27—that is, if they hadn’t already opted to mail ballots in. All electoral district associations were given the option to host a physical polling station but were told costs would have to be covered by the EDA itself.

The Conservative Party charged $1,500 to any riding association that wanted party members to vote in-person. The party charged this money to cover the cost of the voting machine.

Ultimately, aside from polls in the Toronto Congress Centre, there was one in Edmonton; two in Winnipeg; one in Moncton, N.B.; one in Ajax, Ont.; one in Cambridge, Ont.; one in Richmond, Ont.; one in Baden, Ont.; one in Milton, Ont.; one in Niagara Falls, Ont.; one in Creemore, Ont.; one in Rockwood, Ont.; and one in Montreal.

About 2,000 party members gathered at the Toronto Congress Centre this weekend to hear the results of the leadership race and find out who will succeed Mr. Harper as the new party leader. The results will be announced tonight. Mr. Harper led the party from 2004 until the 2015 election.

By the time polls opened on May 27, the party was reporting that roughly 132,000 members had already mailed in their ballots.

Ms. Findlay said that if the party members had the option of voting in-person in their ridings, the voter turn-out would have been even higher. She added that either the central party office should have taken care of the costs of voting machines or should have subsidized it.

“That’s still leaving a lot of members having not voted,” Ms. Findlay said. “It could have been something where, perhaps, there was more discussion and maybe more subsidization from the central party, some way to do it.”

Ms. Findlay, who is supporting Conservative MP Lisa Raitt’s (Milton, Ont.) leadership campaign, said the party should also have provided some incentives to candidates who did not have enough support to win the contest in order to drop out of the race. The crowded field of candidates and the complicated voting system confused a lot of Conservative Party members, she said.

In total, 13 candidates are running the party’s leadership including nine current MPs, three former MPs and one businessman.

The sitting MPs are Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.), Michael Chong (Wellingotn-Halton Hills, Ont.), Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), Ms. Raitt, Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.), Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), Steven Blaney (Bellechasse -Les Etchemins -Lévis, Que.), and Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.).

The former MPs are Pierre Lemieux, Chris Alexander and Andrew Saxton. After Kevin O’Leary’s departure from the race last week, the only businessman in the race is Rick Peterson.

For the leadership convention, the party is using the ranked-ballot system, in which party members are voting for up to 10 leadership candidates numerically, from their most to least preferred. The person with the least number of first-choice votes will be dropped after the first ballot. The lower-ranked choices on the eliminated candidates’ ballots will be distributed among the other candidates and counted again. The process will be repeated until someone receives more than 50 per cent support.

All 338 ridings across the country are weighted equally and have 100 points each, with the total 33,800 points up for grabs. The winner will need at least 16,901 points, or 50 per cent plus one of the available points.

Unlike the Conservative Party’s first leadership election in 2004, the ballot counting this time around has been automated and is being done by computer by Dominion Voting Systems.

It was a slow start to the Conservative leadership convention on May 27, after a late night for delegates, candidates and media alike at the many hospitality suites. With not much taking place until after close of polls at 4 p.m., the convention hall at the Toronto Congress Centre was still just starting to pick up steam after noon with delegates trickling in. While the majority of members had already cast their ballots ranking preferences for leader ahead of time, dozens of the roughly 2,000 attending delegates were spotted heading into the large voting room in the convention hall to have their say on the next party leader.

On top of voting, the announcement of a new leader and a subsequent party, the agenda for May 27 included a final speech by and tribute to Conservative MP Rona Ambrose for her tenure as interim party leader—lauded as a success by many.

Former Conservative MP Joe Preston, pictured in this file photo, said the party will be doing a post-mortem on leadership process after the convention is over. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Former Conservative MP Joe Preston, who is now a member of the national council of the Conservative Party, said that after the convention, the party is going to review what worked and what didn’t at the convention. He said, after the review is completed, the party will be open to making changes for future leadership conventions. Mr. Preston said that all options are on the table and the party delegates will be able to indicate their preferred change at next year’s policy convention in Halifax, N.S.

“There’s no doubt in my mind there’ll be discussion after we recap how this went—what rules changes would make being Conservative easier,” said Mr. Preston, who represented the federal Ontario riding of Elgin-Middlesex-London from 2004 to 2015. “When we’re done, we’ll hear from the grassroots what they’d like to see change. Let’s wait and hear them.”

Mr. Preston said the party could not have paid for the voting machine costs because the party constitution does not allow for paying riding association costs. Moreover, he said the Conservative Party is a grassroots party, and cannot stop any candidate from seeking the leadership of the party.

“Our constitution doesn’t allow for the national party to pay local ridings’ expenses,” said Mr. Preston. “Nobody was held hostage as a leadership candidate. They could’ve left at any time. The last thing I would like to do as a national councillor, or as the member of the Conservative Party, is set rules where only a certain number can enter a race. This is a grassroots party.”

Nick Kouvalis, who remains part of Conservative MP and leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s team, though no longer as campaign manager, said he thinks the party has “done a great job” running the leadership election race, but that it’s “always healthy to review things.”

Said Mr. Kouvalis: “Most of the ballots are being counted, most of the ballots are being filled out properly. There’s not the normal fighting that’s going on and accusations. The party’s doing a really good job with this election.”

Mr. Kouvalis said while it can be “confusing” and “hard to predict” who will win, he doesn’t have the impression members have been confused by the voting in and of itself and said “the ballot’s pretty simple.”

But asked if he’d like to see a change to the party’s preferential ballot, point-based voting system, Mr. Kouvalis said, peronsally, he would like to see a “one-member, one-vote” system with ranked choices brought in.

“I don’t believe in the 100-point riding equality stuff,” he said. “Because ridings that don’t have a big Conservative base, don’t have anything really to contribute in non-election season, are swamped with non-real Conservative members and then their votes are qual to ridings where our donors are and our base is. I just don’t think that’s right.”

As for the idea of bringing back the traditional delegated convention approach to electing a new leader, Mr. Kouvalis said he doesn’t like them, as that’s “where deals are done in the backrooms.”

“That’s non-transparent and [not] accountable to the electorate,” he said.

Mr. Kouvalis said Ms. Leitch’s team was feeling good.

“We’re happy that it’s just about over. Kellie’s been working very hard,” he told The Hill Times. “We’ve got a few more votes to get in here today and then we’re all done.”

While he noted “most of the voting” was already done, he said campaign volunteers were busy with “last-minute stuff,” like calling people and offering rides to those in need in the lead-up to the close of polls.

Former B.C. Conservative MP John Weston said the party’s voting system has its pluses and minuses. While he said he thinks most members would agree that it’s “been a very successful contest,” the ranked-ballot system “was hard to understand.”

“People weren’t sure what happens when they vote second, third, fourth, fifth place, how is that relevant in the end,” he said. “The preference thing may not have been clear to a lot of people.”

Mr. Weston said the use of a 100-point-per riding system was something that was “debated quite vigorously within the party” before it was decided that the newly-merged Conservative Party would use it in 2004. But he said he thinks it would be good to have a “thorough review, including that,” after the leadership election.

“Many people expressed different views and we came to this system we have, after a serious discussion, so I wouldn’t go about trivially changing that,” he said.

A shot of the in-person voting room at the Toronto Congress Centre. By around 2:30 p.m. a line of delegates waiting to cast their vote had formed—though roughly 132,000 party members had already mailed-in their ballots by start of day on May 27. The Hill Times photograph by Laura Ryckewaert

While some have called the system unfair, Mr. Weston said there’s “no perfect system” and he likes that with each riding getting 100 points, regardless of membership size, it means that “even small ridings with few Conservative members are encouraged to participate” and are visited by leadership contenders.

“That would have encouraged more participation within that riding, so there [are] some good things about it,” he said.

However, Mr. Weston said he would like to “see more drama” injected into the party’s leadership election because with “so many competitive influences” Canadians “need a food reason to focus on leadership.”

“The drama isn’t there as you find in a delegate convention where people are able to change their votes at the last minute,” he said. “Drama creates attention,” which creates “popularity” and spurs debate.

“There was something missing about our rather calculated approach that culminates in a computer rendering a decision after thousands of people have come from all over the country—most really had no impact on what happens tonight, the computer knows it all,” said Mr. Weston, adding that he had already cast his ballot before the convention—though declining to say who for.

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