The federal NDP leadership is up for grabs and no one seems to care — but that could soon change

OPINION: The leadership race has attracted little attention, but Kady O’Malley argues the New Democrats’ rejigged online voting system may yet produce some worthwhile drama
By Kady O'Malley - Published on July 7, 2017
Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh is one of four remaining candidates for the federal NDP leadership. (CP/Nathan Denette)

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It was a deadline that, for most of us, likely passed without notice: July 3, the final day of the long weekend that unofficially pushes the country from almost-summer to summer, ushered in this year amid even more high-concept patriotic festivities than usual, since it also marked the calendric halfway point and climax of the year-long celebrations known as Canada 150.

For federal New Democrats, however, July 3 was also the deadline to join the race to replace Tom Mulcair, which means that, barring one or more drop-offs between now and September 17, there will be four names on the ballot presented for the consideration of card-carrying members: Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, Guy Caron, and Jagmeet Singh.

(Two 11th-hour hopefuls, Montreal consultant Ibrahim Bruno El-Khoury and Walrus magazine co-founder David Berlin, filed their initial paperwork with Elections Canada but failed to collect the requisite signatures to finalize their nominations in time to make the cut. Veteran BC MP Peter Julian announced three days after the deadline that he would drop out of the race.)

Three of the candidates are current MPs, while the fourth, Singh, holds a seat in the Ontario legislature.

Singh is also the sole visible minority candidate in the race, while Ashton is the lone female contender, and though you’d be hard-pressed to find any New Democrat willing to publicly raise an eyebrow over the relative lack of diversity, those ratios do seem rather low, given how much effort the party put into encouraging “equity-seeking groups” to get involved in the process.

Under the rules set out for the race, after all, fully 50 per cent of the 500 signatures required for nomination had to be from “female-identified members,” while “at least 100” had to come from other historically marginalized communities, including “visible minorities, Aboriginals, [LGBT] and persons living with disabilities.”

The party also deliberately lowballed the entry fee, which was set at $30,000, less than half the $100,000 down payment required to enter the now-wrapped Conservative race, and capped expenses at $1.5 million — measures that were, much like the signature requirements, meant to level the playing field and encourage candidates from outside the NDP mainstream to at least consider joining the fray.

For whatever reason, though, it didn’t work: with the exception of Singh, the prospect of leading the New Democrats on the hustings doesn’t seem to have roused much interest outside the federal caucus room — or west of Winnipeg, or east of Rimouski.

And while probably few New Democrats were holding out hope that a left-wing version of Kevin O’Leary would crash the party with a made-for-reality-TV campaign, there are almost certainly some who are disappointed that the deadline passed without a surprise last-minute addition to the program. (And now, thanks to Julian’s decision, that program is even shorter than expected.)

To put it as charitably as possible, it has been difficult for the NDP to attract much in the way of media or general public interest in their leadership contest thus far.


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Until last month, after all, they were competing with the Conservatives, whose race at one point involved 14 potential future prime ministers, including O’Leary, one-time Maclean’s cover girl Kellie Leitch, and a contingent of former cabinet ministers including Maxime Bernier, Chris Alexander, and Lisa Raitt — people with some pre-existing name recognition, if not necessarily of the favourable variety.

There were, to be fair, occasional flurries of interest in the prominent New Democrats who’d decided not to take the plunge — Nathan Cullen, Megan Leslie, and Avi Lewis, to name a few — and months of will-he-or-won’t-he speculation over Singh.

Between now and Labour Day, the party is slated to hold three more debates — in Saskatoon, Victoria, and Montreal — and while many party loyalists will dutifully tune in, it’s hard to imagine a critical mass of undecided future voters doing the same from the decks and docks of a summer-vacationing nation.

At this point, even the most determinedly optimistic NDP booster may be ready to give up the dream of converting energy from the leadership race into fuel for a pre-election reboot and rebranding campaign.

A word of advice: don’t. At least, not quite yet.

Thanks to what is, for a political party, an audaciously daring experiment in direct, real-time virtual democracy, the NDP race could end up providing a full month of cliffhanger-punctuated ballot reveals.

Unlike the Conservative race, which was all but decided before the vote officially began, as the vast majority of members chose to cast their preferential ballots by mail instead of heading to an in-person polling station on the day of the count, the New Democrats will, once again, allow their members to vote online — not just once, but in every round, presuming no candidate manages to win the necessary 50 per cent plus one on the first ballot.

Not only will online voters be able to rank their second-and-on selections based on the results from the previous ballot, they’ll also be allowed to re-rank their preferences between ballots even if their initial first choice is still in play.

Subsequent rounds will also take place over the course of a week, which will give the remaining candidates — and their supporters — a major incentive to keep campaigning throughout the month in hopes of winning over soft supporters. (It should also prevent a repeat of the technological glitches that plagued the online voting system during the 2012 leadership vote, which used a similar approach but compressed into a single day.)

Not all the balloting will be dynamic, of course — mail-in ballots will be tallied and distributed using the original ranks, with no option to rejig the list after sending it in.

But if a sizeable contingent of New Democrats does end up exercising its franchise via virtual ballot, that could make it nigh-on impossible to predict how any subsequent vote might turn out, simply because so many of those votes could theoretically be up for grabs — even those parked with still-viable candidates.

Instead of chilling with campaign staff while waiting for the next set of numbers to be announced, candidates that make it through the cut-off could actually head back out on the hustings during the week, and meet back at the next designated announcement locale the following Sunday for what might or might not be the final result.

Barring some sort of major breaking story that dominates the full month of political news, the same media that turned up its nose at yet another friction-free debate will be impelled to start following the play-by-play, if only because we’ve never seen anything quite like this, at least at the federal level.

That, in turn, will likely ramp up public interest, first in the process, but then, most likely, in both the eventual victor and the next iteration of the party itself.

And that, all things considered, might not be the worst way for the New Democrats and their new leader to head into Canada’s 151st, even if they did have a bit of a slow start getting there.

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