Explainer: What comes next in the Liberal vote

Everything you need to know as Liberals pick a new leader

Liberals face tough test in the muddled middle

Photograph by Cole Garside

Justin Trudeau has so soundly won the Liberal Party of Canada leadership that the Conservatives are already rumored to be crafting attack ads.

But his victory is not a done deal. There is an actual vote, which begins after leadership candidates make one final plea for support at the Liberal showcase in Toronto April 6. The results won’t be revealed until voting ends April 14 — plenty of time for the unexpected.

“The most uncertain step in the whole process has yet to come,” says Trudeau campaign press secretary Kate Monfette. That is, how will all these new “supporters” vote? And will the online/telephone voting system work?

Maclean’s can’t predict the future, but we can lay out the facts:

Who can vote:

Party members and supporters. “Supporters” are people who signed up to the party without becoming full-fledged members. The lifelong status was created in January 2012 to whip up excitement for a flagging brand. It comes with the right to vote in the leadership race, and without the price of a membership fee. Everyone keen to cast a ballot needed to sign up for one of those two categories by March 3. Then, they needed to register to vote by March 21. (Registration hit some hiccups, see “What could possibly go wrong?” below).

Related reading:

How they’ll vote:

Voting will take place online and by telephone. Voters were to receive a unique PIN in the mail by April 5. Some already have, like Keanan Byggdin, a supporter-turned-member who was so excited he tried to vote online as soon as he got the letter. The party happened to be testing the voting system at the moment he logged on, so the website was live and he managed to cast a ballot before realizing his mistake. Upsides being: the system appears to work, and he still gets to vote next week.

When they’ll vote:

The polls, so to speak, open at 12:01 a.m. ET April 7 and close at 3 p.m. ET April 14. People at the showcase this weekend can cast their ballot in person earlier in the day on Saturday—but it will still be on a computer.

How will the votes be counted?

In shrugging off the first-past-the-post electoral system, the Liberals have replaced it with “preferential voting.” In essence, it lets voters rank their candidates in a preferred order, the point being that if your first choice doesn’t win, you might still influence results. Each member or supporter gets a single vote. Those votes will be collected by riding, each of which is given a value of 100 points. A candidate with 24 per cent of the vote in a riding, for example, would get 24 points toward their national total. The winner needs a national count of 50 per cent plus one of the vote. If that doesn’t happen in the first round of voting—though observers suspect that’s all Trudeau will need—the candidate with the fewest votes is struck from the ballot, and votes are transferred to whichever candidate was the second choice. The process continues until one candidate emerges with more than half of the vote.

Not clear on that? Watch this somewhat helpful Liberal video.

When will it all be over?

The Liberal Party is promising to announce their next leader sometime between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on April 14. Detailed information, like how many people actually voted, will likely take longer than the headline: who won. The party is unlikely to reveal a breakdown of the vote by supporter versus member, but we could get a peek at each round of voting, if it takes more than one count.

So what could possibly go wrong?

That depends on where you stand.

For Trudeau: This vote will either help confirm the magic of the Trudeau dynasty is alive, or confirm that Justin is not, in the metaphorical sense, his father’s son. The key will be whether his campaign transforms all the 150,000-odd supporters it managed to gather into actual voters. We already know they haven’t. Almost 300,000 people signed up as members or supporters of the Liberal party by the March 3 deadline, meaning Trudeau fans made up at least half. But of those, only about 127,000 registered to vote by the March 21 cutoff. And that was actually an extended deadline, as requested by Trudeau’s people after they had a slew of complaints over problems with the registration process.

For the party: Trudeau’s risk is a also the party’s, because if the star candidate can’t jazz up the brand enough to get out the vote, that bodes badly for the Liberals in upcoming elections. But the Liberal party has taken on additional risks. A category as free and democratic “supporters” is also ripe for abuse. “There’s very clearly a potential for fraud,” notes political science professor Royce Koop at the University of Manitoba. “Because there’s really no constraint to signing up, it’s open to manipulation by people who want to do that kind of thing.”

Ian McKay, the Liberal Party’s national director, said the party’s decision to “fling the doors wide open” by creating the supporter category hasn’t left it wide open to fraud. “We don’t think we’re susceptible to evil machinations out there,” McKay told reporters at the party’s Ottawa headquarters. Originally, the party said it had about 130,000 registered voters, a figure it winnowed down to 127,000 by casting out thousands of registrations that McKay said were made my mistake. The party is “extraordinarily confident,” he said, that any “mischievous” registrations were eliminated.

Proving each of those registrations were made by true Liberal believers would be difficult, but it would also be tough to recruit enough fake supporters to influence the end result. “Even for the most diehard Conservatives, it’s asking a lot of them to sign up and mobilize,” Koop says. Then there’s the cost of getting caught. It may not have deterred the robocalls culprit, but Koop says it’s the reason many politicians stop short of imitating Francis Underwood in House of Cards.

Still, those supporters represent a challenge to party establishment, who have given control over choosing their leader to people who may well care a whole lot less about the outcome. Of the 45,000 members of Liberal party, about 33,750 signed up to vote, compared to 93,000 supporters. It’s a lot of power to hand to newcomers.

All this also assumes the Liberal’s online voting system performs without a hitch, which isn’t such a given—remember the NDP convention and their online voting woes? Long delays alleged caused by an alleged cyberattack left delegates waiting hours between voting rounds. Of course, the Liberals have wisely given themselves a week-long cushion, should any technological bugs threaten the voting process, and plenty of time for all those PIN numbers to arrive in mailboxes—an especially a good thing after delays in mailing out voter registration packages last month.

In the event that a catastrophe does befall this effort to innovate and try something new, the Liberals can console themselves with a 300,000 person boost to their fundraising database.

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