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The Rules Menu: Party Nomination Processes, Three Ways

Canada's three major political parties are conducting candidate nominations in often very different ways from one another in the current election cycle, but those differences are getting lost in all the hand-waving from some pundits about how "they all do it, and they're all the same".

As we start into the process of tracking nominations for the 2015 elections then, it seems like a good first step to review the nomination processes actually being followed by the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals, all of whom have promised to conduct an open nominations regime, but each in their own way.

To party activists, an "open nomination" is one in which the leader does not appoint the candidate, and incumbent MPs are not protected from facing a contested nomination in their home riding. To the media and other outside observers, however, the phrase "open nominations" implies other qualities that are not always so realistic: for example, the idea that anyone should be able to run to become the nominee of a political party (regardless of their criminal record, personal philosophy or suitability, or personal financial rectitude), or the idea that the party leadership will never secretly or otherwise have a preference as to the outcome or try to influence it.

Often, aspiring nomination contestants who fall short in one of those attributes fall victim to paranoia about party rules being manipulated in their opponent's favour, and are very quick to push the media panic button against a party infrastructure that is unable for reasons of confidentiality to defend itself. Other times, those suspicions might be justified. Long-time political observer Keith Beardsley outlined some of the many tried-and-true ways parties and EDAs can put their thumb on the scale in favour or against a nomination candidate in a recent blogpost that's well-worth a read.

But what nominations processes have the parties actually agreed to follow this time? I've reviewed and compared the Nominations Rules of each of the three major parties on a number of key elements, and found three quite different takes on the process that reflect their different party cultures and electoral realities. The Conservative Party's latest nomination rules are found on their website, as are the Liberal Party's on theirs, while I've been able to see and review a copy of the NDP's as well for inclusion here.

[Click on image to open PDF document]A Comparison of the Nomination Processes Adopted by the Three Major Parties for the 42nd Federal General Election

The first difference is the length: the NDP's rules run to 9 pages, the Conservatives to 13 pages, while the Liberal rules take up 18 pages. The parties also expend different amounts of space elaborating detailed rules on different topics: the Liberals spend nearly a page on how to challenge the eligibility of a member to vote and three pages on the conduct of a meeting, the NDP devotes great length to its equity provisions and measures to ensure the physical accessibility of the nomination meeting location(s), while the Conservatives devote numerous sections to the composition and ensuring the neutrality of their EDAs' Candidate Search Committees (CSCs).

But the essential differences between the documents are found in the different nomination timetables they describe. For the NDP and Liberals, aspiring nomination contestants are encouraged to apply for their vetting / green-lighting early (after nominations open in that province, in the NDP's case) but before the nomination meeting is called; whereas for the Conservatives, nomination contenders may not submit their applications at all until after nominations have been opened in their own riding, and they then have only 14 days to complete and return the application. Having one or more qualified nomination contestants is one of the preconditions for Liberal or NDP riding associations to be allowed to go to a nomination meeting, whereas no qualified nomination contestants are even possible in the Conservatives' case until the nomination meeting process is launched in that riding.

For the Conservatives, the membership cut-off date is always 21 days after nominations open in a riding. For the NDP, the membership cut-off date is always 30 days before voting day. But for the Liberals, the membership cut-off date is between 2 and 7 days *before* a nomination meeting is called in a riding, meaning that nomination contestants in that riding will never know until afterwards when the cut-off was. This retroactive cut-off provision is always a sore point, as many participants believe meetings are called in such a way as to prevent their last batch of membership from being included. Honestly, I had thought this provision was being taken out of the new nomination rules, but there it still is in Rule 1.4.

That's in normal non-writ period nominations of course. All the parties make some provision for discretion to permit shortened timelines and abridged processes in the case of a snap election call or expected by-election, and the Liberals go so far as to formalize it in a declaration of "electoral urgency" (NOT "electoral *emergency*" as I sloppily mis-transcribed it in a tweet that unfortunately got far too wide an echo before the distinction was drawn to my attention).

In the current round of by-elections, for example, Liberal National Campaign Co-Chairs Katie Telford and Dan Gagnier declared a state of electoral urgency in regards to the vacant Ontario seats, though it's caused more public concern initially in Trinity-Spadina than Scarborough-Agincourt. In the former case, it allowed the membership cut-off date to be set *after* the nomination meeting date was set, and the membership list apparently to be provided to aspiring nomination contestants who had not yet been green-lit. These changes were cited by Trinity-Spadina nomination candidate Ryan Davey in his decision Wednesday to withdraw from this Saturday's vote to pick the Liberal candidate in a riding whose by-election could be called as early as Sunday. Only two of the original four nomination contestants remain in the race: entrepreneur Scott Bowman and Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan, lawyer Christine Tabbert having already withdrawn  to back Vaughan.

Davey must be assuming that, given former disallowed nominated contestant Christine Innes' presumed massive lead in membership sign-ups in the riding, Adam Vaughan would have needed extra time to sign up members, and an early look at the current membership to do so, even before he completed the green-lighting process. Whether that was the case, or the party was just trying to move smartly to a Saturday conclusion before a Sunday call, I leave to the reader to judge. Certainly there was an IVR poll of the party membership asking about all the nomination contestants but Christine Tabbert on Monday, April 28, as the nomination meeting was called that same night for Saturday May 3, with a cut-off set for still later Monday night at 11 PM. The next morning Tabbert withdrew from the race to co-chair Adam Vaughan's nomination campaign, and Davey concluded he should withdraw the following day.

The parties also differ in a few financial matters. For example, the Liberals demand a non-refundable $1,000 deposit from nomination contestants seeking to be vetted, the Conservatives ask for a repayable $1,000 "good behaviour bond", while the NDP has no deposit provisions, but requires its candidates to sign an undertaking of responsibilities that includes the stipulation that elected members are to give the annual maximum to both the national party and their local riding association. The Liberals and Conservatives both abide by the nomination contest expense ceiling specified in the Elections Act, whereas the NDP imposes a lower spending limit of $5,000, optionally hiked by another $2K in large ridings. The Conservatives demand 25 signatures from eligible party members in the riding, the Liberals want 100 or 15% of the membership whichever is less, while the NDP has no signature requirements but allows a mover and seconder at the meeting.

For the Conservatives, the nomination meeting date is set for 42-47 days after nominations are opened in that riding, while for the Liberals the meeting date must be set at the end of a 13-20 day notice period. In the NDP, the EDA requests a nomination date from the centre, but only after all approved candidates have been given notice of any EDA executive meeting discussing the nomination meeting date, and have been consulted on the proposed date.

The NDP is the only party to build in a service standard of vetting candidates within a maximum of 10 business days outside the writ period; but then they allow candidates to apply for vetting up till 15 days before the nomination meeting, and don't allow candidates to incur any nomination campaign expenses until they're vetted, so they need to be snappy.

The parties differ in their governance models for the nominations process, placing different emphasis on elected, appointed and staff positions at both the party and riding levels.

Various people over the years have called for the running of nomination contests to be brought under the aegis of the Elections Act, not simply the reporting of nomination contests and the regulation of nomination finances that we have now. If that were to happen, it would no doubt impose an expensive and bureaucratic process on a system that is now largely run by volunteers at the local level within riding organizations of widely varying size and sophistication.

A reasonable alternative to consider would be the mandating of certain principles or benchmarks for elements such as minimum period of time to open nominations, a minimum notice period before a nomination meeting, and a guaranteed membership cut-off deadline that would be known ahead of time, along with the usual standards for secret balloting, the right of appeal and right to scrutineers, etc.

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of each process? What's been your experience in your party? Are there any ideas from other parties' systems you would like to see adopted in your own? Should nomination contests be any further governed by the Elections Act, and if so how? Leave your answer in the comment section.

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6 Responses to “The Rules Menu: Party Nomination Processes, Three Ways”

  1. First thing I’d like to see from all parties, but specifically the NDP is recorded vote counts. I think it’s silly that they don’t want to hurt the candidate’s feelings, plus it’s very non-transparent.

  2. Ron says:

    Thank you for the information, Alice. A helpful comparative approach.

  3. David Young says:

    June 30th will be the date for the two Alberta seats, Trinity-Spadina and Scarborough-Agincourt.

    One wonders why Oshawa-Whitby wasn’t included, but that’s worth a thread of it’s own.

  4. MGK says:

    Oh, I think I can understand the timing: Harper is trying to help Tim Hudak, by forcing Liberals and New Democrats to divide resources (especially volunteer time) between provincial and federal campaigns. Because the Toronto races are not in the CPC cross-hairs, they are not-likely to divert PC efforts away from the provincial election — but an election in Whitby-Oshawa at the same time, would.

    If anybody less cynical than I am about Stephen Harper’s motives would like to offer an explanation more charitable to the prime minister, I would welcome the chance to read it.

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