Popular vote is not all-powerful in Tory race

by Chantal Hebert

It is not just in the United States that one can secure a strong leadership position with fewer votes than the runner-up. It has happened in Canada and not just once. It could happen again no later than next spring, when the federal Conservatives hold a leadership vote.

In 1996 in British Columbia, the New Democrats under Glen Clark were re-elected to power and a majority government despite coming second – by two percentage points – in the popular vote.

Two years later in Quebec, Liberal leader Jean Charest received 27,000 more votes than his Part Quebecois rival, but it was Lucien Bouchard who got to lead a majority government.

Canada does not have a U.S.-style electoral college, but at least one of its main political families – the Conservative party – chooses its leaders on a basis that mirrors the American formula.

In theory, it is possible that Stephen Harper’s successor – when he or she is selected next spring – could win despite not being the choice of a plurality of Conservatives. There are at least even odds that whoever is first on the initial ballot will not be the candidate who will have won the most votes.

That’s because the vote for the Conservative party leadership will be weighted by riding, with each being worth the same number of points, regardless of the size of the local membership.

Thus, a candidate with a strong regional base such as former House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer could sign up all the people of his home province of Saskatchewan and thousands more in neighbouring Alberta and still not be in the top tier on the first ballot.

In the reverse, Maxime Bernier, the highest-profile candidate from Quebec in the race, could – if he maxed out his support in his home province – finish close to the top even if a straight one-member-one-vote formula would otherwise find him in the middle or the back of the pack.

A weighted vote to select the party leader was a non-negotiable condition of the former Progressive Conservative party at the time of its coming together with the Canadian Alliance more than a decade ago. At the time, the Tories were worried that they would be drowned in a western-based Reform sea.

That method was in place at the time Harper was chosen. He won more than three times more votes than runner-up Belinda Stronach. But once those were weighted by riding, he finished with less than double her score.

Harper had a decisive lead on both the riding and the popular vote fronts. He was running against only two rivals and he won on the first ballot.

The mathematics of his succession, featuring as it already does at least 12 contenders, is significantly different. In such a wide-open contest, the location of one’s supporters comes first and their actual number a somewhat distant second.

Take Quebec. In the 2015 election, only in Newfoundland and Labrador was the Conservative share of the vote smaller. Its membership rolls reflect the party’s weakness in the province. But in the leadership vote, Quebec’s weight will be second only to Ontario’s.

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Quebec’s impact on the result could be decisive – especially if Ontario splits between the half-dozen candidates who have their base in the province.

In Quebec, the majority of Conservative members are French-speaking. The ground zero of the party is in the Quebec City area. For the most part, they will be insisting on a leader who can debate efficiently in French.

That’s not good news for former transport minister Lisa Raitt. Her recent entry in the campaign was considered a major event outside Quebec but was widely ignored in a province where many consider that electing a federal leader who is not fluent in French is a non-starter.

Keep all of the above in mind as the campaign to replace Harper turns into a party-wide referendum on some of the controversial ideas that were the bread-and-butter of the Trump campaign.

Former labour minister Kellie Leitch has attracted a lot of attention and a fair amount of controversy with a proposal to vet the values of prospective immigrants and, more recently, with an attempt to cherry-pick some of the winning elements of Trump’s campaign.

But she can only win if, within the ranks of the party, there is broad support that crosses regional and language lines for the notions she is defending.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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