Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lessons for the Liberals from the NDP leadership and showcase weekend

With the NDP leadership race and showcase weekend in the books, there are some lessons the Liberal Party should draw from the experience as we prepare for our own leadership vote, scheduled for some time next spring.

I think the first lesson is that you need a strong field of candidates to generate any kind of public and media interest and being new life into the party; coronations aren’t exciting at all. But that’s an obvious one. I think lessons can be drawn in two main areas: the system of voting, and the leadership weekend.

The Leadership Weekend

Love them or hate them, delegated leadership conventions were exciting. They’re now, though, a thing of the past. That’s a positive in that the variations of one member, one vote that have replaced them are far more democratic and more accurately reflects the will of all party members, not just those than can get elected as delegates and can afford to go. It does, though, remove some of the excitement from the equation, and leaves the media without something to cover.

Which was really what the NDP’s weekend leadership event in Toronto was all about. It was a made for TV spectacle designed to replicate some of the elements of a traditional delegated convention (the candidate showcases, flash mobs, scrums) and give the media somewhere to focus and ground their attention and coverage. It actually worked so well at times we forgot we weren’t covering a traditional delegated convention, and that most of the voting had already happened or was happening online elsewhere.

The event was also useful to bring nearly 5000 NDP supporters together for the shared experience of picking their next leader and, as it wasn’t delegated, accessibility wasn’t as much of an issue.

Bringing together the media, the pundits, party staffer and leadership candidates with supporters all in both gives the media a way to cover the news and allowed the party to at least try to control the story somewhat, as well as respond on the fly as events transpire. The delays caused by issues with the voting system aside, the weekend was a strong success in terms of generating the volume and tone of media coverage the NDP was looking for, and a record number ofjournalists were accredited for the event.

While the level of coverage can partially be attributed to factors the Liberals can’t replicate, such as the fact they were picking a new opposition leader and a successor to the late Jack Layton, the NDP has still provided a model we would do well to replicate.

I would also hold our event in the Toronto area, as it has both the highest concentration of media in the country, as well as the largest remaining pool of Liberal supporters to draw into the event. As this isn’t a delegated event, I’m less worried about the need to move it around the country. (And besides, Toronto is actually due.) It’s about maximizing member/supporter and media attendance.

We should do the candidate showcases, fete our outgoing interim leader (assuming he’s not running for the permanent gig), and pump people up about being Liberals. We need a focal point to make the leadership selection real not just for the media, but for Liberals and Canadians as well, and give the new leader a launching pad.

I’d also encourage the organization of regional satellite events to bring local Liberals together to watch the proceedings, cast their votes and experience the event as a shared experience.

The Voting System

First, I should note one key difference between the NDP and Liberal methods of leadership selection. The NDP has a system of “pure” one member, one vote. On the plus side, every vote is equal, but on the down side, if one region (say, B.C.) has most of the members, it also has most of the say. The Liberals, like the Conservatives, have a regionally weighted system: Each riding, despite the number of members and supporters, is equal, receiving 100 points to be distributed amongst the candidates based on the percentage vote of its voters. So while someone voting in a riding with lots of members may have their vote somewhat diluted compared to a voter in a less populous riding, every region of the country is equal and a leader needs pan-Canadian support to be elected.

So in essence, our system is slightly more complicated than the NDP’s. There’s also the wrinkle of our new supporter system, which has the potential to substantially increase the potential pool of voters. It makes some sort of online and/or phone voting system a necessity. However, with the problems the BC Liberals had with getting PINs to members before their leadership vote, and the major troubles the NDP experience this weekend with an alleged DirectedDenial of Service attack possibly disenfranchising thousands, online voting is not without its issues.

Despite the difficulties though, on paper I loved the two-phase NDP plan. In the first phase, voters could choose to submit a complete preferential ballot, and they’re done. Or they could take part in phase two, voting one ballot at a time, so they can react to the results of each ballot. Were I an NDPer, I would have opted for the second option.

I’d urge the Liberal national executive to immediately begin researching online voting systems, and exploring ways to minimize the risk of such attacks occurring or minimizing the impact if they do. If we can’t assure ourselves that we can create a safe and secure online system, we need to make sure we have reliable backups, such as a phone system, in place. This research and work should be happening now. It is vital that Liberals, Canadians and potential candidates have faith in the integrity and stability of the system we’ll use.

Of course, the tried and true option is voting by paper, either the day of the event or in advance by mail. Both have their issues. Particularly if many supporters sign up, organizing polling places across the county is both logistically challenging and expensive, and particularly tough for rural ridings that both lack volunteers and, with their size, would require multiple polls. And both an in-person or mail-in vote would require a preferential ballot, which lacks the drama of ballot by ballot voting.

Personally, I do favour the two-option approach the NDP used. And the more people that opt for phase two, the more potential for drama on leadership weekend. But we need to ensure first that we can build a stable and safe system that will allow everyone that wishes to participate to cast their votes. That must be the top priority.

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leftdog said...

It now appears that the cyber attack on the NDP Leaadership voting system was large and organized. The ability to press thousands of 'zombie' computers into service - to launch denial of service attacks - is calculated and criminal. These threats to democratic process should be top of mind for everyone including the Federal government and police forces.

Brian Henry said...

Even if you were an NDP supporter, you would have found yourelf dying of boredom if you were following the convention from the outside, and frustrated to death by repeated failed attempts to vote.

And the problem wasn't just the cyber attack. With four ballots to get through, you would have had to spend all day coming back to your computer to vote.

What if you actually had something to do with your time?

On the other hand, since it was obvious after the second ballot that Mulcair had it in the bag, I'm sure many Dippers realized there was no real point in further voting.

They could just hit the snooze button till the final results were announced many hours later.