How the rules of the Ontario PC leadership race could affect the outcome

In the Ontario PC leadership race, not all votes are created equal.

Preferential ballots and equally-weighted ridings have led to unexpected results in the past

Ontario PC leadership candidates Tanya Granic Allen, Caroline Mulroney, Christine Elliott and Doug Ford have to know the rules to win the game. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Candidates for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party have to contend with a lot of make-or-break factors outside their control — including the voting rules themselves.

And those rules — the preferential ballot and the equal weighting of the province's 124 ridings — could end up accounting for the gap between the winner and the losers. It wouldn't be the first time.

Is a 'consensus candidate' likely in the Ont. PC leadership vote?

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Featured Video'You need to have good second choice support to win.' says the CBC's polls analyst Éric Grenier.

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.

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.

In the federal Conservative Party's leadership vote in 2017, about 16 per cent of members did not rank either Maxime Bernier or Andrew Scheer on their ballots. Their votes were discarded by the final round.

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

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.

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.

Winning on votes, losing on points

The goal of giving ridings equal weight is to ensure that winning candidates have support throughout Ontario and would be able to win in every part of the province — mimicking the first-past-the-post system that decides elections. But, as with first-past-the-post, this arrangement can distort the will of voters.

In the federal Conservative leadership vote last year, Scheer defeated Bernier by a thin margin. He won 50.95 per cent of points to 49.05 per cent for Bernier.

But on the raw popular vote, the margin was not so tight.

Andrew Scheer, right, defeated Maxime Bernier for the Conservative Party leadership by a wider margin in votes than points. (Canadian Press/Frank Gunn)

Scheer actually received 53 per cent of all active ballots by the final round, beating Bernier by six percentage points. That gave him an advantage of just over 7,000 votes.

But if just 66 party members in the right ridings had voted for Bernier instead, he would have won.

In this year's B.C. Liberal leadership race, Michael Lee had the most votes on the fourth ballot — 37 per cent, compared to 34 per cent for Dianne Watts and 29 per cent for Andrew Wilkinson.

But Lee's voters were concentrated too heavily in a handful of ridings. He was third in points, with 32.5 per cent to 33 per cent for Wilkinson and 35 per cent for Watts. Lee was eliminated. More of his supporters went to Wilkinson than went to Watts, allowing Wilkinson to beat Watts on the final ballot.

Coming from behind to win

The preferential ballot can result in a candidate who has more support than any other being overtaken by a consensus candidate who might have fewer supporters but is more acceptable to a broader swath of a party's membership.

Bernier was ahead of Scheer on 12 of 13 ballots before being overtaken on the final one. Wilkinson was in third place on the first three ballots and second on the fourth before winning on the fifth.

Ed Stelmach won the Alberta PC leadership in 2006 despite placing a distant third on the first ballot with half of the support of first-place finisher Jim Dinning (though another week of voting took place between the first and second ballots). Scott Moe won the Saskatchewan Party leadership earlier this year after finishing second on the first ballot.

Of course, there are many examples of leaders holding on to their front-runner status throughout the count, including Tom Mulcair (2012 NDP leadership), Andrea Horwath (2009 Ontario NDP) and two past Ontario PC leaders (John Tory in 2004 and Tim Hudak in 2009).

Tim Hudak won the Ontario PC leadership in 2009, leading on all three ballots.

Multiple rounds can be avoided entirely if a candidate wins a majority on the first ballot. Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh did it last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did it in 2013 and Jason Kenney did it twice in 2017, in the votes for the leadership of the Alberta PC and United Conservative parties.

But all signs point to multiple ballots being required to anoint a new Ontario PC leader on Saturday. That means second and third choices will be decisive.

In order to win, polling suggests Doug Ford needs a strong showing from Tanya Granic Allen, while Christine Elliott needs to pull a lot of Caroline Mulroney's support. Mulroney needs to ensure she doesn't get eliminated before Elliott to have a shot.

The candidates are making these calculations as they try to ensure that their supporters actually cast ballots, that enough of them do so in different parts of the province and that members who don't rank them first at least consider ranking them second.

If it's close, these are the calculations that could make all the difference.


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.