Why political party nomination processes require serious reform (November 2014)

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc – President Bartlett, West Wing

It is what it is, except that it isn’t – Bill Murray, St. Vincent


For too long nomination contests to select the political party candidates to stand for election to the House of Commons have been the ignored, undemocratic underbelly of our political system. If we are serious about strengthening our democracy and citizen engagement, then we urgently require reforms not just to the electoral system and parliamentary structures, but also to the processes for selecting the candidates who will represent the various parties.

Nomination contests are very much controlled by the leader and their entourage, especially in so-called winnable ridings. Selecting the candidate to represent the party in the next general election too often becomes the party’s equivalent of the Hunger Games – an amoral competition among insular elites courting favour with the leader.

The process of signing up new members and getting them out to vote in nomination contests is so ethically challenged and devoid of any genuine attempt to engage the broader electorate, that few Canadians pay any attention.

A vicious circle then sets in. Party insiders will acknowledge the shortcomings privately but, as long as the party leadership and elites continue to tolerate the situation and as long as a person’s standing in the party depends on the strength of one’s links to the leader’s entourage, few will risk speaking publicly. Nomination contestants who point out what is going on ‘behind the curtain’ do so at their peril. Such whistle-blowers rightly fear being kicked to the sidelines permanently, their reputations abused and their motives maligned.

The time is overdue for serious reform.

Problems with the democratic legitimacy of the current nomination process:

  • There is no accurate and complete membership list, administered and maintained by an arms-length neutral body, available fairly to all nomination contestants on a level playing field for the purposes of contact and canvassing prior to nomination voting day. In addition, when one nomination contestant controls the riding executive, that contestant can unfairly manipulate access to the membership list through such tactics as deliberately recording bad contact information, or delaying updating memberships until the last moment before the cut-off.
  • The central party organization controls the cut-off date for new members eligible to vote. This enables the central organization to manipulate eligibility to vote in favour of a preferred contestant.
  • There is no meaningful oversight of the party rules requiring personal payment for memberships, leading to significant vote-buying by deep-pocketed contestants. The advantage is held by the contestant who is able to collect the least-engaged, most malleable and vulnerable voters, together with the key community organizers prepared to get out the vote.
  • Acceptable ID is often not required and enforced at the point of initially joining the party. When this is combined with insufficient official party verification and authentication of ID on the day of the vote, it has permitted ethically-challenged vouching involving false IDs to become widespread and entrenched as an acceptable means of gaining an advantage in the nomination contest.
  • There is little or no effective and efficient outreach to or interaction with the riding electorate and potential voters during the nomination contest. Meet-the-contestant events are few and far between, and too often are scripted and choreographed to discourage free debate and meaningful exchange.
  • There is little or no focus on issues and policies; a nomination contest is viewed more as sport not public service.

The following is a framework for serious reform that will introduce respect for democratic values and high ethical standards into the nomination process:

  • Create a new membership registration mechanism that is fairly and efficiently administered by a central arms-length body in accordance with unimpeachable ethical standards. More generally, we must consider a significant role for a neutral body such as Elections Canada to better oversee the entire nomination process on behalf of all the political parties.
  • Encourage the involvement of a much broader base of the riding electorate. This requires the elimination of unethical vote-buying and the undignified amassing of automaton voters. One approach is to permit people to sign up to vote without payment. But this will only work if we are able to perfect the process of obtaining satisfactory ID at the first point-of-contact, and maintain the continuity up to the day of voting.
  • Limit all nomination campaigns to four to six weeks with a public and predictable schedule. This allows candidates to get into the race and, if they lose, return to their prior occupations as soon as possible. This would also eliminate the need for any special treatment for so-called star candidates for whom nominations are deliberately delayed to the last moment to minimize a break with their employment.
  • Ensure the primary focus of nomination campaigns is on many in-person all-candidate forums/exchanges in local establishments. For example, events should be scheduled at least four evenings and two afternoons a week throughout the campaign, in popular venues like cafes or pubs, where people can sign up to vote. These forums/exchanges are the most effective test of local appeal and eventual competence in Parliament.
  • Implement online voting, subject to a rigorous system to authenticate voters. This requires the process of joining the party to be much more rigorously administered by a credible arms-length body mentioned above, at which time personal ID, that will eventually be presented at the time of a vote, is assessed and determined to be acceptable.