Liberal leadership explainer...

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... and a few thoughts on the lay of the land

In about a week, nominations will close on the Liberal leadership and the race will be on.  Candidates will have until the end of September to line up support, but when a winner is declared in mid-November, it won’t necessarily be the candidate with the most votes who wins the thing.

On Twitter yesterday, I described the Liberals’ leadership selection process as “hellaciously complicated.” Liberal Party VP John Hogan respectfully disagrees. I’ll lay it out for you to decide.

First of all, here’s the timeline events:

- Friday July 5 at 5 p.m. is the deadline to register. If you’re not in the race by then, you can’t sign up later.

- Sept. 30: The final day to sign up as a Liberal party member or “supporter.” Any members or supporters who are signed before then get to vote.

- Nov. 13-15th is when the votes get cast and the new leader is picked.

To get your name into the race, leadership candidate needs to pay $20,000 (in four convenient instalments of $5,000 between July 5 and Aug. 30) and candidates need to get 50 signatures from party members or supporters in at least 10 electoral districts. Once you’ve got that, go forth and campaign.

Now, let’s talk about the voting process (I’ve posted the rules in their entirety here, if you're interested.) I know I said it was complicated, but the Liberal party manages to boil it down into one neat little sentence in the leadership rules document: “The vote to select the NLLP Leader shall be a preferential one person one vote system, weighted by Provincial District.” (If you understand exactly what that means, feel free to skip over this next bit.)

In November, all the party members and supporters will cast a preferential ballot. That means they’ll rank their choices for leader. Here’s where it gets tricky, though. Each electoral district gets 100 “points” for a total of 4,800 points across the province’s 48 districts. The winner is the candidate who manages to get to 2,401 points — 50 per cent plus one vote. Candidates get points based on the share of the vote they get in each individual district.

That means in one district, there may be 2,000 Liberals voting, and in another district, there may be 20 voters, but the districts each have 100 points to be apportioned.

If nobody gets to the magic number of 2,401 points on the first ballot, then the candidate with the lowest number of points gets dropped off, along with anybody who got less than five per cent. The busy bees at the Liberal party go back to their ballots and look to see who the second choices are, and those people get votes in the second round. If nobody has 2,401 points after the second round, then the bottom candidate gets dropped, and things go on to a third round, and so on until somebody gets more than 50 per cent of the electoral points.

If you’re getting a bit confused here, maybe an example will help. Say there are four candidates: Steve, Andrew, Pam and Ashley. 

On voting day, in the district of Port de Grave (which has lots of Liberals) a thousand votes are cast. Steve gets 40 per cent of the vote. Andrew gets 30 per cent, Pam gets 20 per cent, and Ashley gets 10 per cent. That means Steven gets 40 points, Andrew gets 30, etc.

Meanwhile, down in Ferryland district (where Liberals are fewer) only 150 people cast votes. But Ashley is from down that way and has lots of friends and family supporting her, so she gets 60 per cent of the vote. Steve gets 30 per cent, Pam gets five per cent and Andrew gets five per cent too.

So if we tally it up, based on those two districts, Steven and Ashley are actually tied for points — they both have a total of 70. Andrew is in third place with 35 points, and Pam is in last with 25.

What would happen next is Pam gets eliminated from the race, and all of the votes that went to her get redistributed to the other candidates, based on whatever the voters’ second choices were.

So even though Ashley only got 190 votes and Steve got 445, Ashley could still win the leadership.


Some thoughts about our current situation:

This is a fairly new system. The federal Liberals used essentially the same structure to pick Justin Trudeau as leader (he won overwhelmingly on the first ballot, though, so they didn’t really get into the tangly issues involving ranked ballots and regional weighting.) The NDP used a ranked ballot too, and there were four rounds of voting before Thomas Mulcair was picked as the leader, but they didn’t do the regionally weighted stuff.

I’ll be blunt. I think this system favours Dwight Ball in a big way, and if Cathy Bennett gets in the race I think the system works against her.

What the Liberals’ system means is that a candidate benefits if they’ve got steady support across as many electoral districts as possible — especially the electoral districts that only have a few Liberal voters in them. Being organized across the province and having a faithful core of voters spread right throughout Newfoundland and Labrador is the surest path to victory.

Three months is a long time to travel around the province shaking hands and signing up new party supporters. But if you’re already well-established within the party and have already been quietly organizing for months — I’m looking at you Jim Bennett, Dwight Ball and Danny Dumaresque — that gives you a major leg up.

Also, because it’s a ranked ballot, it helps to be inoffensive and likable, even if you don’t get voters fired up. On the other hand, if you’re the sort of candidate who’s really polarizing for Liberals, this could work against you. If there are voters who really dislike you, they’ll rank you right at the bottom of their ballot. That means no matter what happens, those votes will go to your opponent.

It’s possible to imagine that Dwight Ball will only get 30 per cent of the first choice votes in November. But he could still win it if enough Liberals shrug and say, “Well, he’s been doing a decent job as interim leader, I guess I’ll put him down as my second choice.”

On the other hand, it’s equally possible to imagine Cathy Bennett running, but a small but motivated portion of the party being dead set against her because of her role in the Muskrat Falls project. (She was on the board of Nalcor for five years from 2007 to 2012, and is an unqualified supporter of the project.) If 20 per cent of the voters are vehemently against Bennett, it doesn’t matter if they’re voting for. On a ranked ballot, those votes will go to whoever is the strongest candidate against Bennett, and they could be enough to tip the balance and defeat her.

A week is an eternity in politics. Four and a half months is an unfathomably long time, and literally anything could happen. But it’s important to know that the person who wins the Liberal leadership on Nov. 17th won’t necessarily be the person who gets the most votes. It’ll be the person who wins under the current leadership process. And that’s a different matter altogether.

It’s sure going to be fun to watch it play out though, eh?

If there’s any aspect of this blog post you’re unclear about, don’t hesitate to leave a comment, or email me at

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