Conservative leadership camps scramble for final votes amid ballot snags

Dianne Watts may pack more than a change of clothes when she heads to Toronto for the Conservative leadership convention Saturday. Because of issues with the mail-in ballots, the B.C. MP may hand-deliver some votes as well. But are the reported problems significant enough to affect the outcome?

Thousands of members may not have received ballots in time to vote by mail

Dianne Watts may pack more than a change of clothes when she heads to Toronto for the Conservative leadership convention Saturday.

Because of issues with the mail-in ballots, the MP from Surrey, B.C., may hand-deliver some votes as well.

"If there're people that haven't received their ballots yet and they receive them tomorrow ... we will collect those ballots and make sure someone gets on a plane and gets to Toronto to get those ballots counted," she told CBC News Thursday.

"It's very important for us to make sure that every vote, every ballot gets in and it's counted."

Watts, who's supporting Erin O'Toole in the race, didn't receive her own ballot in the mail until Wednesday — too late to submit by regular mail, although sending it by courier was still an option.

As of Thursday, volunteers in her riding were collecting other late ballots to forward in a batch.

B.C. MP Dianne Watts knows firsthand the frustration of Conservative party members who never received their ballot packages in the mail. Hers only arrived this week, and she's helping collect and deliver others to make sure everyone in her area who wants to vote can do so. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The party is accepting ballots at any of the 14 places where members can vote in person Saturday, including the convention site in Etobicoke, Ont. Otherwise, mailed ballots must be received at the party's processing centre by 5 p.m. ET Friday.

But with no place to vote in person in B.C., mail-in ballots were the only option.

Karl Buchanan of Abbotsford, B.C. — who usually votes Conservative but wasn't a party member before now — signed up online for ballots for himself and his father. But his never arrived, despite follow up calls. 

He said it's very disappointing not to be able to vote for his picks: Michael Chong, Erin O'Toole and Deepak Obhrai. 

The party offered to return his fees.

'Thousands' missing

Another new party member from rural Manitoba, Angela Smook-Marusak, contacted CBC News this week to say three different ballots were supposed to have been mailed to her over the last month, but as of Friday afternoon, none had arrived.

She signed up to support Pierre Lemieux, but doesn't live in a riding where local members organized a polling centre, so she can't vote. She finds it both frustrating and disrespectful.

CBC coverage of Conservative convention

CBC's live coverage of the Conservative leadership convention begins Friday at 5 p.m. ET on cbcnews.ca, Facebook and CBC News Network with a special one-hour Power & Politics with Rosemary Barton. Coverage continues with our CBC News special hosted by Peter Mansbridge at 6 p.m. ET. We'll have more streaming video, live updates and analysis at cbcnews.ca/politics.

Saturday's live coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET, with first ballot results expected around 5:30 p.m.

"Lots didn't [receive their ballot package on time]... across the country it must be in the thousands," said Hamish Marshall, an organizer for Andrew Scheer's campaign.

Volunteers working the phones this week are still hearing tales of ballots that never came, he said.

"We've found 400-500 on our list of supporters," he said. Often a member's address wasn't accurate or current in the system, but not always.

He offered the example of Shari Green, the former mayor of Prince George, B.C., who received her ballot package while her husband and son at the same address did not.

As the deadline neared, the party resorted to sending out missing ballots by courier.

Party Executive Director Dustin van Vugt even dropped off a few stray ballots personally last weekend, although he said it wasn't a large number worth reporting.

"Our goal throughout this process has always been to ensure as many people can vote as possible, which is why we extended both our membership cut-off and our ballot reprint request cut-off," party spokesman Cory Hann wrote CBC News.

"We've mailed out well over a quarter of a million ballots across the country and had just 1.1 per cent that were either returned by Canada Post for being undeliverable or marked return to sender," he said. "We went through each of those returns and reached out directly to those members to help get them a ballot."

The phone line for reporting missing ballots was frequently, and frustratingly, busy.

Was the party caught by failing to print enough ballots for a larger-than-expected membership list of over 259,000?

125,000 votes received so far

No vote is ever perfect, but it's all adding up to a process some want the party to rethink for next time.

But first comes Saturday's count.

As of late Thursday, Hann still said the number of ballots received and processed by the party was about 125,000.

Conflicting reports about how many arrived in the final few days and whether the party's processing volunteers have caught up to this volume make it difficult to say whether the final turnout number will be much larger by Saturday.

About 1,400 have registered to attend the convention and may vote in person. Some guess another few thousand may turn out at other voting sites.

The 2017 Conservative ballot offers members a chance to mark up to ten ranked choices for leader, but some may only mark only one. Machines will tabulate the results on Saturday, with many rounds of elimination and reallocation of votes expected before one candidate gets over the 50 per cent support threshold required to win. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The complex, ranked ballot of 14 names (Kevin O'Leary withdrew after the ballot printing deadline) had to be placed first in an inner envelope for confidentiality and then sealed in an outer envelope with a signed declaration and proof of the member's identification. That's caused confusion.

Hann estimates about 96 per cent of the returned ballots, however, will eventually count, with scrutineers instructed not to reject votes because the envelopes weren't sealed properly.

The number of rejected ballots so far may be in the neighbourhood of 5,000-6,000.

Campaigns have been updated regularly on whose ballots were received, so they could check supporters who already voted off their lists.

Will problems affect outcome?

Marshall remains confident the process has been fair and sees no conspiracies afoot.

"It's not hurting or helping any one candidate," he said — all report similar frustrations.

The final leadership debate for the 13 Conservative leadership candidates was held just as ballots were being mailed in late April. Weeks later, some members still hadn't received their voting packages, with some making extraordinary efforts to vote. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Chisholm Pothier, a spokesman for Michael Chong, doesn't think the ballot problems have reached a critical mass. 

"The math wouldn't suggest it's a huge problem," he wrote.

But in a race where handfuls of votes could determine who drops off the ballot or moves on to receive another reallocation of second- or subsequent-choice support, some campaigns are leaving nothing to chance.

Watts wasn't sure Thursday when she would leave for Toronto, staying behind perhaps until the last minute to collect a final few votes.

With files from Catherine Cullen, Rosemary Barton and Manjula Dufresne


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