I’m getting quite a few questions on how voting works for the BC Liberal leadership convention.
If you’re a member of the BC Liberal Party, and haven’t registered to vote, you can go here: https://www.bcliberals.com/Leadership/
Voting begins on Thursday morning at 9am (PT) and ends at 5pm (PT) Saturday. FAQs at the Party website.
The complicated part is the counting.
It’s a preferential ballot meaning that you only vote once and you have the opportunity to rank your choices. There are six candidates. There is no downside to filling out your ballot from 1 to 6 – it doesn’t hurt your preferred candidate. In fact, it ensures your vote will count right through to the final ballot if your preferred candidate is eliminated.
In the old days when leaders were picked at delegated leadership conventions, voting delegates in the hall would vote for their candidate. The results of the first ballot would be announced then if no candidate had a majority, there would be a second ballot and everyone would line up again to vote. The bottom candidate would be eliminated.
If you supported the bottom candidate, you could stay in the hall and vote for someone else on the second ballot. Or you could walk out the door, go to McDonald’s, have a cheeseburger, and go home to bed.
That’s what happens if you don’t fill out your preferential ballot. If your #1 preferred candidate is eliminated, and you do not fill out your ballot in terms of your 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th choices, then you might as well be out having a cheeseburger when everyone else’s vote is being counted to determine who will be the next leader.
My Dad went to the 1968 Liberal leadership convention. He went there supporting Eric Kierans, who was eliminated on the first ballot. He didn’t go to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger; he stayed and ended up voting for Pierre Trudeau on the fourth and final ballot.
Some folks wistfully remark that it’s not as exciting as the good old days. The preferential ballot lacks the drama of candidates walking the floor between ballots to endorse a rival. In 1976, Sinclair Stevens surprised delegates when he walked over to endorse Joe Clark, creating momentum for his eventual winning candidacy. In 1984, Bob Skelly prevailed amidst complicated floor dynamics to win as a compromise candidate for the BC NDP leadership. In 1986, Bud Smith cemented Bill Vander Zalm’s win when he walked past Grace McCarthy and Brian Smith to endorse the man who many of his supporters preferred as their second choice. Gerard Kennedy delivered mightily for Stephane Dion in the 2006 federal Liberal leadership race propelling Dion to a final ballot victory over Michael Ignatieff. Hey – delegated conventions elected Joe Clark, Bob Skelly, Bill Vander Zalm, and Stephane Dion. Excitement hardly guarantees long-term success.
In that 1968 Liberal convention that my Dad attended, Paul Hellyer should have walked after the 2nd ballot and waited one ballot too long to influence the outcome despite supporter and cabinet minister Judy LaMarsh imploring him to stop Trudeau: “you’ve got to go to Winters. Don’t let that bastard win it, Paul—he isn’t even a Liberal.” As seen on live TV.
The federal NDP has had its share of convention floor drama. In the 1989 federal NDP contest, CBC mic’d up candidate Simon de Jong, who forgot he was wearing it, exposing viewers to bareknuckle backroom discussions with BC’s Dave Barrett. It was reported that de Jong leaned over to his mother asking, “Mommy, what should I do?” Audrey McLoughlin went on to win. Then there was Svend Robinson who led after the first ballot in the 1995 NDP federal leadership convention. He realized he couldn’t win and dropped out, endorsing the second place candidate Alexa McDonough, who became leader.
Sure, old-style conventions could be dramatic, but not necessarily democratic. There’s no perfect system, but at least the current system of universal voting for members allows people from all over BC to participate without barriers of cost and travel. Every member is equal, rather than select delegates wheeling and dealing their votes to the highest bidder.
Another key part of the voting system is that ridings are weighted. Each riding is equal to 100 points for a total of 8700 points (87 ridings * 100). This prevents one region of the province from swamping another. A point is basically the same as the percentage of the vote in that riding. If 200 people vote in the riding of Sasquatch-West and Candidate X gets 70 votes, X will get 35 points (35%).
(In 1993, the BC Liberals chose Gordon Campbell on a purely one member-one vote system. The Executive of the Party proposed the system. Contender Gordon Gibson opposed it and sought changes to make it more regionally balanced. Campbell’s campaign, of which I was the Campaign Director, backed the Executive and the rules passed the two-thirds vote required by one vote. Amazingly, there was no demand for a recount as people were shocked. Six weeks later, Campbell went on to win the leadership vote decisively with about 65% on the first ballot, and would have won under either system, frankly.)
Back to the voting system this weekend, it remains to be seen how many members will ‘leave the hall’ by not completing their ballot. If members only rank their first and second choices, there may be thousands of members that miss the final vote. What happens in that case is that those ballots are removed from the pile.
Using the example above, if the rival Candidate Y received 60 votes in Sasquatch –West, he or she would garner 30 points on the first ballot. But what if Candidate Y was eliminated thereafter from the ballot and his or her supporters did not record second choices? That would reduce the pile of votes in Sasquatch-West from 200 to 140, and, now, Candidate X (still in the race) would go from 35% (70 votes out of 200) to 50% (70 votes out of 140). A candidate doesn’t need to increase his or her support in raw votes to see an increase in his or her points because support would be increasing as a percentage of the overall pile, due to the pile shrinking. Did you get that?
No matter what, there will be 100 points per riding and the winner will need at least 4350+1 votes to win on the final ballot (8700 points divided by half, +1).
Voting ends at 5pm Saturday. Results should be broadcast soon thereafter and they will come in rapidly, count by count . It won’t take long. There will be drama, just not the way it used to be. Instead of hours upon hours of speculation, Saturday’s drama will be very concentrated within a relatively short period of time.
How many counts will it go? The federal Conservative race that elected Andrew Scheer had 14 candidates and went 13 counts. The winner needs a majority. This weekend, if the winner gets a majority while two or more candidates split the rest, it may go four counts or less. It is more likely that this process will require a full five counts to determine a winner.
We’ll see what happens when the votes, and the cheeseburgers, are counted on Saturday night.