678,000 Conservatives were sent leadership ballots. For the contenders, the final battle is now underway
OTTAWA — No matter how many clicks a candidate has on social media or dollars they have in the bank, what it’s going to take to win the Conservative leadership race is votes.
But both the likes and the bucks are part of getting that vote out.
Get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of all five campaigns are shifting into high gear with just a month remaining in the contest, and even less time to get ballots back to party headquarters to be counted.
“It takes a massive amount of work,” said Chris Rougier, a veteran campaigner at the helm of Jean Charest’s effort to lead the party.
“It’s much more tactical than any other level of campaigning.”
In this leadership race, the work is at a level never experienced before by any of the campaigns — the party has 678,000 members eligible to vote, more than in the last two leadership races combined.
It’s a challenging process, and far different than a general election, in which voters simply go to a polling station and cast a ballot.
This contest uses a mail-in ballot, which requires party members not only to check their physical mailboxes — not necessarily an everyday occurrence in a digital world — but to then complete the multi-step process.
“It’s much more complicated,” Rougier said.
So far, about 150,000 ballots have been sent back, the party said Wednesday, with 50,000 of them sitting in the party’s so-called “vault,” where they are waiting to be verified.
That leaves about 70 per cent of eligible voters in the mix.
What it’s taking to get those votes is political persuasion matched with logistics.
At the political level, candidates are keeping up the pressure on their rivals and trying to keep the spotlight on themselves.
“Conservatives won’t win with empty slogans,” Scott Aitchison said in a pitch to members this week as he recirculated his policy to motivate supporters.
Leslyn Lewis, who along with Pierre Poilievre skipped the party’s last final debate to focus on getting out the vote, continues to pitch new ideas.
In one recent email, she suggested COVID-19 vaccines are the reason behind a number of deaths attributed to what she called as SADS — sudden adult death syndrome.
The actual condition known as SADS is defined as “sudden arrhythmic death syndrome,” a condition that’s been studied for decades as the reason otherwise healthy people die from heart attacks. There is no known link between COVID-19 vaccines and the syndrome.
Then behind the curtain of the policy pronouncements is the hustle and bustle of the ground game.
The voter mobilization phase requires resources to be marshaled nationwide, with dozens of photocopiers sent out to help party members make copies of the identification that must be sent back with their completed ballots.
That’s one reason why campaigns are holding hold in-person balloting events: to provide photocopiers to those who don’t have access to one at home or work.
Stephanie Kusie, a Conservative member of Parliament who is helping with Poilievre’s campaign in Alberta, has spent the last few weeks running in-person voting events on behalf of his campaign.
She said there’s a bigger reason for them than just providing photocopiers.
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“Selling Poilievre in Alberta is not that hard. People support his message and his values,” Kusie said in an interview.
“But everything is better when you provide a structure. People want to be excited about something and come together.”
With upwards of 311,000 party memberships sold by his campaign, Poilievre has a massive pool of voters to court and Kusie said the central campaign is doing an “incredible” job tracking them.
“I know we will reach as many of those individuals are possible,” she said.
“I’m sure we’ll be sending out teams to ring doorbells in the last week of August.”
Beyond in-person events, Charest’s team is encouraging members to vote with live and automated phone calls, social media, emails and even traditional mail.
“It’s the full gambit,” Rougier said, adding that get out the vote efforts work best “when every element is used.”
For now, the campaigns are just helping members get their ballots in the mail. But as the Sept. 6 deadline approaches for those votes to be back at party headquarters, they’ll use couriers and eventually their own drivers to make sure that happens.
And two other elements of the race are at play in those efforts.
The party uses a ranked ballot, meaning each voter can rank the candidates in their order of preference — they don’t have to pick just one.
Ballots are counted in rounds, with the candidate who has the least amount of support dropped from each round and their supporters’ second choices counted instead.
Unpacking that system for voters is part of Roman Baber’s voter drive.
“The Baber campaign is busy calling supporters to secure their vote,” he said in a statement.
“It’s also focused on explaining the mechanism of the ranked ballot to try and switch a very high number of voters who will mark Roman as number two, but whose vote won’t count because their number one candidate is unlikely to be eliminated off the ballot before Roman.”
Then there is the party’s points system.
The party doesn’t select a leader using a one-member, one-vote process.
Instead, each riding is worth 100 points, and each candidate is awarded a portion of them based on their share of the votes in each riding.
In the 2020 leadership race, presumed front-runner Peter MacKay was believed to have more party members behind him than rival Erin O’Toole.
But when it came to getting out the vote, O’Toole swept the table in Quebec, where membership numbers were low and each voters counted for more points.
Although Poilievre now claims the lion’s share of party members, Charest’s team claims it has the points — and that will inform its strategy for getting out those votes. The Charest campaign has also enlisted Tannis Drysdale, who ran O’Toole’s get-out-the-vote operation in 2020.
“It’s all about points efficiency,” said Rougier.
The party will unveil its new leader in Ottawa on Sept. 10.
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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