Thursday, January 19, 2012

Revisiting Staggered Primaries

After looking at how the supporter system was conceived yesterday, today I gaze ahead at what its future might hold. Specifically, the musings of some that the LPC could still hold staggered primaries, even though a motion to do this fell short of the 2/3 majority needed to pass at the Liberal convention this weekend.

The argument goes that the party didn't need a constitutional amendment to hold a staggered primary since the National Board has the right to "set the date" of the vote, and in past leadership contests this has given them the flexibility to select multiple dates over the same weekend. And heck, 58% of Liberals voted for staggered primaries, so members have effectively endorsed the concept.

Now, this isn't the Parti Quebecois. I believe a clear majority is needed to enact major change and I don't believe we should keep voting until my side gets its way. The amendments discussed at convention failed, and should be tossed aside until at least the next leadership race.

That said, questions remain about the supporter system, such as the exclusion of 14-17 year olds and the membership cutoff period. Logistics might also make a single day of voting impossible. The party may choose to go to its membership on these issues via extraordinary convention, as was the case when they delayed the leadership vote in June 2011.

And if they do, I don't think it would be at all inappropriate to suggest an alternative primary mechanism - one that addresses some of the real concerns about fairness and abuse raised at this weekend's convention. Here's one idea I floated during the edge-of-seat thrill-a-minute WOMOV debate of 2009:

My System of Choice

As mentioned above, WOMOV lacks some of the excitement you get from conventions. So, to remedy this, I'd propose the following version of WOMOV (copied somewhat from the primary system):

1. Carve the country up into, say, 30 regions of around 10 ridings each - so, for example, Edmonton would be a region, BC Interior would be a region and so doesn't really matter how you divide them up.

2. Randomly divide up the voting schedule so that it takes place over 4 weeks. I'd set it up where you had 2 regions voting the first week, 4 the second week, and then 12 each of the last two.

3. On the final weekend, you could also hold a series of provincial or regional "mini-conventions" that anyone would be free to attend, to watch the results come in - this would include the reading of the second choice votes if candidates fail to reach the necessary majority on the first ballot.

This would give you the New Hampshire/Iowa/Super Tuesday excitement of the US primary system condensed over a month and, since the order would be drawn at random, it wouldn't favour any one particular region. You'd get Canadians more excited in the entire process, compensating for the loss of convention pizazz.

Obviously enough, you could carve the country up into however many regions you like, and schedule them as you see fit. For those unwiling to put their faith in the hands of the random number generator, we could add a disclaimer that Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, and BC must each get at least one primary over the first two weeks.

So how might this play out?

Perhaps the fates will select Winnipeg and Quebec City the opening weekend. The candidates would descend on these cities, the local media would cover them and, hopefully, Liberal voters there would decide to be a part of it. From there, the race might shift to the BC Interior, Ottawa, Northern Ontario, and Nova Scotia for week two. This would be followed with the rest of the country over the final two weeks.

By selecting the regions at random, you'd be taking the possibility of shenanigans out of the hands of the national executive and you'd avoid the "New Hampshire effect" where one region always gets to go first. The regional focus would still mean heaps of local media coverage, and the month-long timeline would generate buzz and help vet the candidates.

Now that the Liberal Party has embraced the supporter system, I'd suggest we go all in, and select the leadership selection process which is most likely to encourage supporters to sign up. Staggering randomized regional primaries would be fair and it would be damn exciting.

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  • Terrible, terrible idea (both staggered primaries, specifically, and primaries in general). The problem with staggered primaries is that the first primaries are much more important than later ones, due to momentum. For instance, in two days, Romney may effectively win, based on votes in three small-to-medium sized states.

    In a country that is defined by its regional divisions, it makes little sense to adopt a process that will effectively exclude vast swathes of the country from the process.

    Secondly, there is the cost factor. Primaries are massively expensive, because you have to reach a much larger audience. In the 2008 Democratic primary getting 37 million Americans to vote required collective spending in excess of 500 million dollars. A campaign of equivalent relevance in Canada would cost 50 million dollars, tapping out every Liberal donor alive five times over.

    Thirdly, open primaries do not produce electable candidates. The party flacks that vote for convention delegates (and delegates themselves) may have ideological beliefs, but are, fundamentally party men/women that want a candidate who can win elections.

    In contrast, primary electorates tend to care less about the party, and more about their own issues. And rare is the primary voter willing to show up and support a bland, moderate candidate.

    And lastly, delegated conventions are IMMENSELY exciting. They are exciting because anything can happen - there are many cases in which initially third place candidates have ended up winning, etc.

    Yeah, the US has had some exciting primaries recently. That is more of the product of the personalities involved. You didn't see nearly as much interest when it was say, Gore vs. Bradley, Dole vs. Gramm, or even Bush vs. McCain. Given Canada's tendency to produce boring politicians, I'll leave you to guess what a Liberal primary might look like.

    By Anonymous hosertohoosier, at 3:50 p.m.  

  • I still think we'll get cars that run on potatoes if PEI gets to go first. (Not necessarily a bad thing)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:50 p.m.  

  • H2H - Valid points, but the delegated convention is out as an option. And I can't imagine the costs for the Liberals would be that much higher holding primaries on 4 consecutive Saturdays than over a single weekend. Either way, they need the same number of ballot boxes and volunteers.

    Similarly, the party has opened itself up to "supporters", so they're voting regardless of whether or not the primaries are staggered.

    That just leaves the fairness argument about whichever region goes first having disproportionate say. Which might be true. But if Atlantic, Quebec, ON, BC, and Prairies were all guaranteed a primary in first 2 weeks, that would be somewhat mitigated. And I think the reason NH and Iowa get so much say is because they go first every year. If you draw at random, no one has that repeated advantage.

    I recognize it's still not as fair as everyone voting at once, but I'm willing to make that trade-off if it means more media and more people signing up for the Liberal Party. Even if the new voters are mostly focused on specific issues, a percentage of them could likely be coaxed into volunteering, taking a sign, donating, etc.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 5:12 p.m.  

  • Guaranteeing that some places in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Quebec and the Prairies will go early doesn't mitigate the problem, because there are massive divisions within these regions. Just imagine the optics of having Montreal speak for Quebec or Toronto for Ontario.

    And the fact that a future leader might be selected by a different metric is going to be short shrift to excluded regions (then again it seems like you guys have a new leader ever 3 years or so)... in addition to the mysterious and magical nature of random number generators to most people (maybe if you used Mackenzie King's Ouija board to select that date instead).

    And I'm not so sure that staggered primaries would encourage more people to volunteer/donate. You would probably get a lot of interest in the early voting regions, and very little in the regions that voted later, when the contest had been effectively decided.

    Leadership races are exercises in expanding a party's base. Relying on randomly staggered primaries means that the areas where the Liberal base will be expanded most going to be selected randomly.

    If you're going to go a staggered primary route, you need a primary schedule that will expand the Liberal base in marginal districts, while not overly pissing off any one part of the country (particularly Quebec).

    A good first 2 weeks would look like (though this is partly a reflection of how badly the Liberals fared in 2011):

    1. The 905
    2. Montreal
    3. Vancouver
    4. Nova Scotia

    But a random number generator could just as easily come up with:

    1. PEI
    2. Rural Quebec
    3. Rural Alberta
    4. Eastern Ontario

    The challenge is to come up with a seemingly fair criteria, that would help justify an electorally beneficial primary calendar.

    By Anonymous hosertohoosier, at 5:59 p.m.  

  • (and by Montreal I mean the suburbs, not the west island)

    By Anonymous hosertohoosier, at 6:00 p.m.  

  • Dan
    I disagree. I think having primarys in fixed places would work waaay better.
    Start in the maritimes (and NFLD) then do the praries, then BC then Quebec then Ontario.
    It is still one member one vote so someone could still fail in all of those but carry it by winning ontario.
    Have a convention in each area on the weekend of the vote and have a debate on Saturday and the vote on Sunday. Allow phone and internet voting as well as in person.
    This would give tons of different options, try to win the west and Quebec, BC and Ontario, but it would also give momentum a chance to carry an underdog to the front. Win on the praries and the momentum can carry you to Ontario.
    The regional conventions would make for great televison, and people could walk in to vote and register as supporters if they got excited by the debate on Saturday.
    The media would love this horserace and cover it everyweekend for 5 weeks. Front page news, top of newscasts.
    The candidates would get tested in every region, they would have to know local issues and build a local team. It would be so good for the party.
    having weird random areas to vote in would allow for none of this excitment. The small local conventions would be reasonably cheap,as say Alberta could piggy back their AGM on it. It would be a huge event and get Canadians interested. It would be an acid test of leaders and the ability to perform.
    It would be the way to go.
    I heard nothing out of Ottawa that got me excited...something like this would really change the party.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:38 p.m.  

  • I think they should look at doing what the Alberta PCs do and have two votes, several weeks apart.

    One idea they could hbe done, which I believe someone blogged on before, was have a vote for MEMBERS to decide the top candidates, whether it be the top three or everyone over a certain percentage, and then a second vote that allowed SUPPORTERS to vote for the leader.

    By Blogger Jordan, at 9:24 p.m.  

  • "I believe a clear majority is needed to enact major change and I don't believe we should keep voting until my side gets its way."

    And yet, here we are...

    And what are the logistical impediments if its, as its expected to be and has been expected to be since we implemented WOMOV, an online/phone vote?

    By Blogger Jeff, at 11:50 p.m.  

  • The stated advantage of staggered voting is to force the candidates to spend time in various regions, and not just in the major population centres.

    But as a minor quibble: four consecutive weekends spans three weeks, not four.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:39 a.m.  

  • I see the larger issue here as the 41 day cut off for signing up. That should be the first thing to go.

    By Anonymous Kyle, at 2:39 p.m.  

  • Jordon - That's an interesting idea. Have members vote one weekend, then if no one gets over 50%, the supporters + members vote among the top 2 or 3.

    Of course, the downside there is that supporters might get confused if they're promised a vote then they see all this media coverage about the first round of voting and aren't allowed to. Given that, maybe it's best to just let them vote in both rounds.

    Either way, the Alberta PC system is exciting, but it has led to some very peculiar results.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 5:07 p.m.  

  • Kyle - Agred. That will need to be changed. There's no point in staggering the vote if people can't sign up after it begins.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 5:09 p.m.  

  • Jeff - I'm not sure, but the party has never held a vote of this magnitude by phone/email before. I'm not sure any party has. It's highly possible it's not feasible to do it on one day.

    Truth be told, I was assuming it would be done like the 2006 DSM vote with polling stations in each riding (though I'd rather see it done phone/email). In that race, they had to stagger the contests over a weekend.

    Either way, I think there are some outstanding questions which need to get figured out. It's highly possible some of these will require a vote among party members. And, like Kyle said, I think there's some value in shortening the membership cut-off (which wasn't up for debate at the convention).

    Add it all up, and it seems like another extraordinary convention might be needed.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 5:13 p.m.  

  • Random primaries may seem logical and fair but they'll make no sense to anyone except staticians and policy geeks.

    If you're going to have staggered votes - and it sounds like a good idea to me - then Neil's outlined the right way to do it.

    If you have random primaries all over the country, you wouldn't get half the media coverage or excitement than if you you do one region at a time.

    And the guys running don't have to be in numerous areas of the country at the same time.

    And of course if you move from the smallest area of the country to the largest, it's not over till it's over (unlike say election night when it's all but over as soon as the polls close in Ontario).

    By Blogger Brian Henry, at 10:46 p.m.  

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