Membership list controversy looms over BC Liberal leadership vote

Less than a month before it elects a new leader, the BC Liberal Party has a brewing controversy about the legitimacy of the organization’s membership list and who will be eligible to vote.

Leadership races are typically clouded by questions about the credibility of membership lists, but rarely on this scale. Sources say six of the seven leadership campaigns are complaining to the party that about 60% of BC Liberal memberships – more than 24,000 of the roughly 44,000 members as of the December cut-off date to qualify to vote – do not comply with party criteria to be eligible to elect the successor to Andrew Wilkinson.

They are warning of catastrophic reputational damage to the party if the situation is not addressed and if the race is not perceived as free and fair. The party’s leadership election organizing committee, in turn, has written the campaign teams that it intends to address the issues. But given the extent of the concerns, some campaigns are skeptical problems can be solved in time.

To mitigate foul play in the contest, the BC Liberals required a prospective party member to supply a full first and last name, full address, birth date and an unduplicated phone number and email address. (For those without email, the party accepted a witnessed document.) The four-year membership costs $10 and must be paid with a unique credit card or by cheque, again to avoid one person paying for a batch of memberships.

But reviews of the membership lists conducted by campaigns in the leadership race have concluded there is the potential for massive voter fraud next month to choose a new leader. The problems appear to have become acute in recent months: for instance, campaigns are questioning the validity of more than 14,000 of the 23,000 memberships sold since last May 1, when the campaigns and the membership drives went into high gear.

In some cases, the membership data reveals that more than one member shares a phone number or an email address. In some of those cases, campaigns found members that held the same phone number and email address but different residential addresses in different ridings. Some had provided out-of-province phone numbers or addresses, and some addresses weren’t residences but were parking lots or forestry service roads.

The membership lists have been shared with all of the campaigns to permit candidates to court their support. But campaigns have written the party to note that when they contacted newly minted members by phone or in person, many were unaware of their membership, of a leadership contest or even of the BC Liberal party itself.

A significant issue amid the questionable membership data is that some of the party’s new members have misrepresented where they live and claim to reside in ridings where there are few party members. Given that each riding will have an equal weight in the February vote – 100 points per riding to be divided among the candidates according to their percentage of the votes – membership in a riding with fewer members would have a greater voting value than it would in a riding with many members. The potential to skew the result is particularly high in those ridings.

Documents provided to BIV indicate the complaining campaigns’ review of the membership data concludes that unqualified memberships outnumber qualified memberships in 30 of the province’s 87 ridings, in some instances by a 4-to-1 margin. A widely shared document among campaigns, reflecting the results of data analysis of the memberships, suggests no riding has less than one in seven memberships in non-compliance with the rules.

These irregularities are by no means a new phenomenon in this party or in others. The BC Liberal leadership campaigns in 2011 and 2018 were marked with allegations of problematic memberships. The difference now is that non-compliance with the rules can be detected with technology. Some campaigns have enlisted expertise to do so, but they are not assured that the party can do the same.

The leadership executive committee has pledged in the last few weeks to campaigns that it would be inclined to set aside the February result if it uncovers voter irregularities or excessive campaign spending. Some campaigns are seeking more details of what the party will do in the next few weeks to ensure the integrity of the membership list.

Earlier, the party committed to randomly audit 10% of the new memberships. The complaining leadership campaigns argue that somewhere between one-third and one-half should be audited.

Each member has to register to vote by re-inputting information, a process that was tested internally in the last few days and ought to eventually yield evidence of the deficient memberships. But some of the leadership campaigns contend the process remains susceptible to fraud because the party is not using sufficiently modern technology and will not have time to be able to review tens of thousands of problems by the February 3-5 voting period.

The leadership vote will be conducted with a preferential ballot in which members select their first, second and subsequent choices. The lowest vote recipient on each ballot will be dropped and that candidate’s votes will shift to each voter’s next choice. First-choice votes will be accorded their percentage of 100 points in each riding.

Candidates in the race include former provincial candidate Gavin Dew, former cabinet minister Kevin Falcon, MLA Michael Lee, former BC Chamber of Commerce president Val Litwin, MLA Renée Merrifield, MLA Ellis Ross and housing developer Stan Sipos. The next provincial election is scheduled for 2024. •           

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.