How the counting of points, not votes, could determine Conservative leadership race

The winner of the Conservative leadership race will need a lot of votes, but he or she will also need them to be from the right places in the country.

Maxime Bernier's lead in Quebec gives him an advantage, but surprises possible

Conservative leadership candidates are in the home stretch of getting out their vote with just over a week remaining for their supporters to cast ballots. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

When the ballots are finally counted on May 27, the most important factor in deciding who will be the next leader of the Conservative Party might not be which candidate has the most votes. Instead, it could be where those votes are from.

Although there are 259,010 members eligible to vote in the Conservative leadership race, all votes will not be counted equally.

The party gives equal weight to each of Canada's 338 ridings regardless of how many members that riding has. Each riding will be worth 100 points, distributed proportionately according to each candidate's share of the vote.

This will make members in some parts of the country far more valuable than others. There are more than three times as many members in Alberta as in Quebec, but less than half as many ridings — and points.

An analysis of donations provides an indication of just how significant the effect of this disparity could be.

Maxime Bernier led the field in fundraising in the first quarter of 2017, receiving donations from 26.9 per cent of all individual contributors who donated money to one of the 13 leadership contestants between Jan. 1 and March 31. This put him well ahead of his nearest rival, Kellie Leitch, who raised funds from 16 per cent of all donors. (Kevin O'Leary had more donors than Bernier but withdrew from the race.)

Pierre Lemieux followed at 12.6 per cent, Andrew Scheer at 11.9 per cent, Erin O'Toole at 8.6 per cent and Michael Chong at 6.5 per cent.

But mapping these donations — over 16,000 in all — shows how the distribution of a candidate's support might influence the number of points they get.

Weighting each candidate's total of donors in the same way as points will be awarded in the leadership vote, Bernier's advantage in Quebec, where he had 49 per cent of all donors, increases his overall share by four points, boosting him to 31.1 per cent. Leitch also receives a small bonus, increasing her share of the points to 16.6 per cent.

Other candidates, however, suffer from an inefficiently distributed base. Lemieux slides to 11.9 per cent, Scheer to 10.4 per cent, O'Toole to 6.8 per cent and Chong to 5.4 per cent.

Quebec MP Steven Blaney, with just 3.5 per cent of the donors, increases his share of the points to 5.2 per cent, surpassing Brad Trost and Lisa Raitt in the process.

Bernier 'wins' most ridings

Though the points won't be distributed winner-take-all, the data suggests that Bernier is well placed to take the greatest share of first ballot votes in the most ridings.

Bernier had or was tied for the most donors in 216 ridings, including 59 of 76 ridings in British Columbia and Alberta, 61 in Ontario and 67 in Quebec.

Leitch placed or tied for first in just 55 ridings, most of them in Ontario and concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area and the central part of the province.

Lemieux was ahead in 30 ridings while Scheer had the most donors in 25, though almost all of them were west of Manitoba. O'Toole ranked first in 16 ridings, mostly in Ontario, with Chong ahead in 13, largely in Canada's three biggest cities. 

Blaney "won" nine ridings (all in Quebec), while Trost had the most donors in seven, Raitt in five and Chris Alexander in three.

The full results showing each candidate's share of donors in all 338 ridings can be found in the map below:

Direct link to the map

Lagging indicator?

It is possible that the share of donors each candidate had in the first months of 2017 may be a lagging indicator.

Polling by Mainstreet/iPolitics shows that much has changed since the end of March, particularly after the withdrawal of O'Leary. Since then, Bernier's support has surged 12 points among party members, while Scheer has gained seven points, O'Toole has picked up five and Lemieux three.

Leitch has seen her support drop by three points and Raitt's has slipped by two.

Few votes, many points

For a glimpse of how the equal weighting of each district could affect the vote, look at the Alberta riding of Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner, one of the districts in the country with the most Conservative members.

In the first months of 2017, Scheer claimed 23 per cent of the 95 donors from the riding, followed by Leitch at 22 per cent, Bernier at 20 per cent and Lemieux at 15 per cent.

If the vote splits in this manner, and if turnout is high, the top candidate could receive some 1,000 votes from Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner alone.

But then consider the Quebec riding of La Pointe-de-l'Île, which has very few members. Just eight donors contributed to a leadership candidate in the first quarter of 2017 — and all of them donated to Bernier.

In a small riding with perhaps no more than a couple of dozen ballots cast, it is conceivable that one candidate could sweep or nearly sweep those votes. To use these examples, Bernier's handful of votes in La Pointe-de-l'Île would award him 100 points. In Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner, 1,000 votes might award a candidate just 20 to 25 points.

Potential for surprising results

And that is just on the first ballot. Voters can rank up to 10 candidates, their support passing from one candidate to their next preference as the candidate with the fewest points countrywide is dropped off the ballot after each round.

The points system, particularly in ridings with few members, could cause some wild variations. For example, there were just 16 donors in the Quebec riding of Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup. Eight of them went for Blaney, seven for Bernier and one for Leitch.

If repeated in the vote, Blaney would get 50 points from this riding, with 44 going to Bernier. Now imagine that Blaney drops off the ballot and his voters need to be redistributed. Perhaps these eight donors were all-in for Blaney, so they do not rank any candidate as their second choice. The same happens for Leitch's one voter.

These nine votes would then be discarded entirely, giving all 100 points in the riding to Bernier, despite him not having been the second choice of anyone.

Multiply these oddities across dozens of ridings throughout the country, and you have the potential for some significant discrepancies between total votes and total points and some potentially unintended consequences — along with a few surprises.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

With files from David McKie


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