Preferential ballots and equally weighted ridings: How the Ontario PCs choose their leaders

Progressive Conservative party's system was designed to give ridings equal weighting, and require a winner to have broad regional support, versus traditional one member, one vote systems.

Where voters live can be more important than how many individual voters support a candidate

Doug Ford managed to defeat three-time PC leadership candidate Christine Elliott in a race that came down to the wire. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

If you're perhaps mildly confused about how the Ontario Progressive Conservatives choose their leaders, take comfort in the fact that you are certainly not alone. 

The process is relatively complex. It's designed to ensure that a candidate has support throughout the province, rather than in limited geographic areas. 

That's partly why, despite the fact that Christine Elliott won both the popular vote and also the majority of ridings, the former MPP still lost to the PC's newly elected leader, Doug Ford, by a razor thin margin. 

Elliott is contesting the result, and has vowed to investigate "serious irregularities with respect to the leadership race."

In a piece published in the run-up to Saturday's leadership convention, CBC News polls analyst Éric Grenier offered the following explanation of how a preferential ballot and equally weighted ridings can affect the outcomes of Tory leadership contests:

Not all votes are equal

"Though the rules of the Ontario PC leadership race give all members of the party the right to vote, all votes are not necessarily created equally.

"The preferential ballot allows voters to rank the candidates. If no candidate earns a majority of first-choice electoral votes, the last place candidate is eliminated, along with any other candidate with fewer than 10 per cent of the votes.

"The eliminated candidates' votes are then redistributed according to who was ranked next on their supporters' ballots. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of electoral votes."

This is what happened to the votes of members of who ranked Tanya Granic Allen as their preferred candidate. The majority of voters for her on the first ballot were redistributed to Ford on the second. 

"Members do not need to give every candidate a ranking, however. If all of the candidates who were ranked on a member's ballot are eliminated, that member's vote is discarded," Grenier continues.

The equal weighting of each riding also makes some votes count more than others.

How votes are weighted

Each of Ontario's 124 ridings will be worth up to 100 electoral votes. If a riding sees fewer than 100 ballots cast, each member's vote in that riding is worth one electoral vote. In a riding with more than 100 votes (that's the vast majority of them), each candidate is awarded electoral votes equal to the percentage of votes they received in the riding.

In other words, regardless of whether a riding has 100 or 1,000 members, a candidate who receives 40 per cent support from that riding gets 40 electoral votes.

Christine Elliot said in a late night statement on Saturday that she will 'investigate' how some 1,300 postal codes were assigned to the incorrect riding. (The Canadian Press)

This makes some party members worth more than others. Northern Ontario party members living in ridings with fewer than 100 voting members, for example, will find that their ballots weigh many times as much as those cast by people living in some ridings in the Greater Toronto Area, where there are 5,000 or more eligible voters.

So in the Ontario PC leadership race, where a candidate's supporters live could turn out to be more important than how many individual supporters the candidate has.

In the end, fewer than 150 points separated Ford and Elliot when all the ballots had been counted. In a late night statement, her team said it "identified entire towns voting in the wrong riding. 

"Most importantly, thousands of members have been assigned to incorrect ridings; for example, Mount Hope, inside of Hamilton, had its members assigned to Chatham-Kent, several hundred kilometres away."

CBC News reported on Saturday that the delay in announcing Ford's victory was due to 1,300 postal codes that were assigned to the wrong riding.

However PC officials said that the party's chief electoral officer had reviewed the problem, and determined that it was not statistically significant enough to change the outcome of the election.