How Votes Are Counted Matters

At the 1976 Progressive Conservative leadership convention, Joe Clark received support from 11.7% of the delegates on the first ballot. He went on to win on the fourth.

There were ten candidates in total. Those with low or declining vote count played a very important role. Three of them dropped out after the first round of voting, and all joined the Clark camp.

In the second round Clark almost doubled his vote count, while Flora MacDonald—the other standard bearer for the “Red Tories”—grew her support only a little. She made a majestic walk across the convention floor, surrounded by her team, wearing the yellow scarf of the Clark campaign. It was great political theatre.

Claude Wagner led on each of the first three ballots by diminishing margins. In the final ballot, Clark prevailed by 63 votes out of 2309 cast. Clark won because he was the second or third choice of more people than Wagner. It was all decided on the day of the convention. Delegates were informed and influenced by the choices of withdrawing candidates.

That is not what will happen on May 27th at the Conservative convention. Party members will be required to list up to ten candidates in order of preference, and to mail it in to be received by May 26th.

Another option will be to vote on the date of the event, at the convention, or at centres elsewhere if riding associations set them up, which is likely to only happen in big cities.

Either way, a voter will have made all of her or his choices before seeing any results.

A certain number of candidates will be dropped off after the result of the first round of voting is determined. Each of the ballots supporting them will be reassigned to the continuing candidate next highest on their list, and a next count will be done.

This process will continue with more and more candidates dropping off until a winner is declared. Any apparent drama will be artificial. Candidates dropping off will have no opportunity to influence the next ballot preferences of their supporters. Since all of the ballots have been in hand for some time, the organizers could declare the final result at the beginning of the announcements if they wanted to.

Voting systems matter. Donald Trump won all 50 delegates to the Republican convention from South Carolina with 32.5% of the vote, more than any of the other five candidates in the race at that time. He won all of Florida’s 99 delegates with 46% of the vote.

It is thus crucial to understand the voting system when considering the prospects of the various candidates, most particularly late entrant Kevin O’Leary.

O’Leary stage-managed his entry into the campaign for maximum media exposure. He is very fond of the word “I”. He does not appear to have much interest in policy; at time of writing there is no website telling us what he believes. He seems to think that he can establish a useful contrast with Justin Trudeau by being unpleasant. He lives in the United States and is in no apparent rush to move back to Canada.

His advantage is that in an otherwise somewhat bland crowd he stands out. As was the case with Trump, he is a gift to the media who have fawned attention on him.

It will be well nigh impossible for the average Conservative party member to learn about all the other candidates. Many members may include O’Leary in their top five simply because they have heard of him.

Forum Research says he is well ahead in polls. An Insights West survey found only four of the 14 candidates were familiar to more than half of the poll’s 1,007 respondents.

No surprise there. Both polls were surveying all Canadians, most of whom would have an even less clear picture of the field than Conservative party members.

And, of course, polls are becoming less and less reliable. Yet, the media seize on each one as if it is important news. But, if some of the candidates expressed some interesting ideas at the Quebec City debate, readers would be hard-pressed to find them in media reports.

There is a real risk that O’Leary could become the leader—not because of widespread enthusiasm for his candidacy, but because many voters might to decide to throw in a name they have heard of after listing the ones they know something about.

Let’s hope media coverage becomes more helpful. But the most knowledgeable source of information about the candidates is the candidates themselves, having spent considerable time listening to each other at events.

Around the end of April, some will realize that this is not their time. They can do a great service to the party members by ceasing to campaign and identifying the handful of other contenders that they believe members should consider.

That will be newsworthy and will draw attention to those who have been performing best. Well-known party elders such as Joe Oliver and Peter MacKay could do the same thing.

Or a well-respected pollster might, confidentially of course, persuade all or most of the campaigns to name their favourite five and publish the aggregate result. Or hard working reporters could, off the record, ask campaign leaders to comment on other campaigns and discern, less scientifically, the same thing.

Nobody should make choices based on either. But it would tell party members where to look further when making their choices.

The choice of Conservative party leader is very important to the country. It should be as well-informed as possible.


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