Summer By-elections to Challenge Party Organizations
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What if they called a by-election and nobody came … out to vote, that is.
That's the challenge now facing candidates and campaigners in the four federal by-elections called Sunday for Monday, June 30. The day before Canada Day. On what probably half the country will try to take off work as part of an extra-long weekend. Good luck with that!
The Prime Minister certainly had some unexpected scheduling challenges in calling the vacant Ontario seats. Although everyone had expected NDP MP Olivia Chow to resign her seat in Trinity-Spadina to seek the Toronto mayoralty, which she did on March 11, few expected long-time Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis to resign his Scarborough-Agincourt seat on April 1. Given that it would be a decent target seat for the Conservatives' ethnic outreach strategy without "Jimmy the K" as the incumbent, the governing party obviously took an interest in trying to seize the moment by including it with the other three vacant ridings. But that pushed the timetable back.
While everyone anticipated a spring provincial election in Ontario, in fact it had been expected for June 26. But then provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath signalled her loss of confidence in the Liberal government the day after the May 1 budget, and Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne seized the opportunity to dissolve the legislature later that Friday afternoon and move to an earlier election call. Wynne opted for an early dissolution, even though the theoretical election day of June 5 was already known to be unsuitable by reason of a Jewish religious holiday, thus pushing voting day out to June 12, and many observers believe she did so to avoid further potentially damaging testimony before the legislative committee considering the gas plants closure scandal.
But now Wynne's preferred timing landed on top of the next federal by-election window, leaving the PM with two remaining options: either a late June trip to the polls for four or five ridings, or a call now for the two Alberta seats, with the Ontario ridings called mid-August for mid-September, before the Ontario municipal elections got into high gear for an October 26 E-Day. And the Macleod by-election had to be called for May 17 at the latest, so tick tock.
The end result is that voters will go to the polls, in both Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabasca in Alberta, and Trinity-Spadina and Scarborough-Agincourt in Ontario, on June 30, while the late Jim Flaherty's seat of Whitby-Oshawa will wait for another round of by-elections probably in the very early or the late fall. The delay in Whitby-Oshawa seems to be a complete non-controversy locally where they're still mourning Flaherty's loss (although the usual suspects on Twitter still tried to ratchet up the predictable faux outrage).
Sunday's call also means that the federal writ period will be longer than the minimum of 36 days specified in the Elections Act. This means that the expense ceilings for the by-election candidates, and those for their parties, will have to last 51 days, or about 50% longer than usual.
So: a longer-than-usual Ontario provincial writ period, a longer-than-usual federal writ period, plus Ontario municipal pre-election preparations all going on at the same time. Toronto voters in those ridings are going to be campaigned-out and ready to get out of Dodge by the beginning of July. The question is whether or not they'll go vote first.
Naturally, a situation like this calls for an Advance Poll / advanced voting strategy, a domain that has without a doubt favoured the Conservatives in the past.
The governing party won't seriously contest Trinity-Spadina, just as the NDP won't in Macleod. The Liberals put out a news release Sunday afternoon claiming they are the only party that will contest all four seats. But it would be a cold day in July before Macleod returned anyone but a Conservative to Ottawa, and as a long-time Liberal said to me, "if we lost Agincourt things would have to be really bad". So, really, most of the battle will take place between the NDP and Liberals in Trinity-Spadina, with an honourable mention to Fort McMurray-Athabasca for the possibility of making inroads against the government's previous winning margin there, and bragging rights for a renewed fight on the new boundaries in 2015.
The by-election riding and candidate records have now been added to the Pundits' Guide database, viewable here. More on them in a future post.