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 races to select 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.

While the following comments reflect direct experience of the Liberal Party of Canada process, all political parties encounter similar challenges. Selecting the candidate to represent the party in the next general election becomes the party’s equivalent of the Hunger Games – an often amoral competition among insular elites, sustained by ego and personal ambition.

The process of signing up new members and getting them out to vote 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. Many Liberals acknowledge the shortcomings privately but, as long as the party leadership and elites continue to tolerate the situation and as long as standing in the party depends on the strength of one’s links to the leader’s entourage, few will risk speaking publicly. Nomination candidates 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. Just on the technical level, Liberalist seems disturbingly inefficient and ineffective as a centralized tool for the registration and analysis of party membership. But, 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.
  • There is no meaningful enforcement 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 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 Liberal 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 within the Liberal Party in accordance with unimpeachable ethical standards. More generally, we should also 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 that has become all-too-characteristic of Liberal nomination races, especially in so-called winnable ridings. One approach is to permit people to sign up to vote without payment, similar to the supporter category for the federal leadership race. 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. Another approach is to continue to require a payment for membership, and only permit voting by acceptably ID’d members with a longer-term and demonstrable attachment to the Liberal Party and its values, for example, only those persons who had signed up at least six or twelve months before the nomination vote.
  • Ensure the primary focus is on many in-person all-candidate exchanges in local establishments. For example, events should be scheduled at least four evenings and two afternoons a week throughout the campaign. These exchanges are the most effective test of local appeal and eventual competence in Parliament.
  • Hold four to six week campaigns with all nominations being held according to 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.
  • 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.