OTTAWA—A by-the-minute plan to reveal the new Conservative party leader found itself delayed by hours Sunday as technical problems counting the ballots forced the postponement of the results.
Upwards of 175,000 ballots were cast in the contest by the Friday deadline.
Counting had already been underway, but late Sunday the machines tasked with slicing envelopes malfunctioned, requiring several thousand ballots to be extracted and replicated by hand under the close eye of scrutineers.
For a leadership race largely carried out in the midst of a global pandemic, its final hours being knocked off schedule should have come as no surprise. Another element forcing the delay was the restrictions on how many people could be in the counting room, further slowing down the process.
The COVID-19 pandemic also meant a low-key event for Sunday night. Gone was the celebratory vibe of thousands of party members packing a massive convention centre.
Instead, a small convention room in downtown Ottawa was converted to a broadcast studio, where race organizers and outgoing leader Andrew Scheer gave speeches in person, while the four candidates remained in their own rooms to await the reveal of the results.
In his speech, Scheer said he felt he was leaving the party in good shape—121 MPs, which is more than after the 2015 election, high fundraising numbers, and a strong will to defeat the Liberals.
All conservatives have a home in the party and must be unafraid to speak up for their values, challenge mainstream media narratives, and leftist professors, Scheer said.
Conservatives can be a “silent majority” no more, he said, but it will take unity to achieve that.
“For the last few months, the different candidates and their supporters have been highlighting the difference between them,” he said.
“After tonight, let’s all come together and focus on the things that unite us.”
Scheer stepped down in December after a disappointing election result saw calls for his dismissal grow too loud to ignore, but party president Scott Lamb said Scheer had done well by the party and deserved its thanks.
“With you, we took a large step once again to forming Conservative government,” Lamb said.
As the delay progressed Sunday, Erin O’Toole hosted videoconference sessions with campaign volunteers, thanking them for their work and giving them a behind-the-scenes look at his night in real time.
“I’m feeling very confident because of your hard work,” he told them, his wife Rebecca and their two children standing behind him.
O’Toole, as well as candidates Peter MacKay, Leslyn Lewis, and Derek Sloan, all mounted extensive get-out-the-vote efforts with their volunteers in the waning days of the campaign. Getting every ballot possible to headquarters was of key importance.
The party uses a points system to determine the winner, with each riding in the country allocated 100 points. A candidate needs a majority to win. But the number of votes in each riding varies wildly in accordance with the party’s membership list there.
One ballot coming out of a riding with smaller membership numbers could be worth as much as dozens coming out of a larger centre.
To win, a candidate must accrue 16,901 points.
The party also uses a ranked ballot, so if no candidate receives that majority after the first count, the candidate with the lowest number of points drops off and his or her supporters’ second choices are tallied.
Ahead of the winner’s reveal Sunday, MacKay’s campaign manager Alex Nuttall said they expected multiple rounds of counting—and some surprises.
“I think we’ve got the horsepower to get us across the line,” he said.
The eventual winner will face major challenges right out of the gate.
One: the party is the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, and in exactly a month’s time, the minority Liberal government will deliver a throne speech laying out a post-pandemic recovery plan.
The vote on the speech is a confidence motion and the Liberals have all but dared the Tories to try and bring them down.
Two: the new leader will have to unite the party after a fractious leadership contest also dramatically impacted by the pandemic itself.
“The race was as chippy as I’ve seen in all my years of politics,” said Jenni Byrne, a longtime Conservative who has run past federal election campaigns.
“Party unity is job one.”
Should MacKay win, he’ll face a third challenge: he doesn’t have a seat in the Commons, and will need to appoint a leader there whose job it will be to respond to the throne speech. Lewis has the same issue to contend with.
Lewis, the Toronto lawyer and relative political neophyte, ended her campaign with nearly $2 million in donations.
Considering many told her she’d never even make the $300,000 entry fee, the donations send a message, she said.
“We have shocked the pundits, many in our own party, and Canadians right across the country who had forgotten what happens when you give the grassroots a real voice,” she said.
The fundraising totals—MacKay at over $3 million, O’Toole over $2 million, as well and Sloan at around $900,000—came even as the candidates campaigned during a period of mass upheaval in the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the delay of the race itself. The vote was originally scheduled for June but punted as efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 shut down the country.
It also forced a new way of campaigning.
Rather than hundreds of in-person meet-and-greets with party members, the campaigns went entirely virtual for a time. Chicken dinners were replaced with Zoom calls, pancake breakfasts with telephone town halls.
The challenges mounted by the pandemic were significant but also opened the door to what was potentially a better way, suggested Lisa Raitt, a former Conservative cabinet minister who ran for leadership in 2017.
“It used to be, if the candidates didn’t go out, you couldn’t raise the money. Now, people could just tune in at their leisure and it made it a lot easier to fundraise and get the message out.”