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Liberals still trying to figure out primary-style election of new leader

The Liberal Party will not ask its supporters to pay a fee to vote for a new leader.

The next leader will, instead, be chosen by a process that bears at least a passing resemblance to the American primary system, despite a last-minute attack of cold feet by some.

The leadership race formally got under way Wednesday, when the national executive set the ground rules for candidates and announced the dates for the leaders' debates.

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The executive is, however, still mulling two important questions concerning the new supporter category.

As approved at a party conference earlier this year, supporters are not required to be fee-paying, card-carrying members of the Liberal Party of Canada. Simply by declaring themselves supporters, they can cast a vote for the next leader.

At the root of the idea is the effort to duplicate, at least in part, the excitement and broad public participation that mark the American primary system, in which anyone who registers as a Democrat or a Republican can cast a vote for their candidate for the presidential nomination.

Over the eight days of the voting period next April, potentially hundreds of thousands of Canadians who support former MP Martha Hall Findlay – who formally announced her candidacy Wednesday – or Montreal MP Justin Trudeau –who has been campaigning for weeks – or any other candidate will be able to vote for them, without having to become a dues-paying party member.

But in recent weeks, figures in the party have been showing signs of increasing nervousness over the new supporter class. First, the executive imposed a cutoff date of March 3, six weeks before the leader is chosen, for supporters to sign up, which means people won't be able to get involved in the race just as it starts to get interesting.

Now the executive is pondering two other questions: how much information to ask supporters to provide, and whether to charge them a fee to vote.

Asking supporters to register by providing basic information such as name, address, email address and the like is a sensible precaution. The party has a right to know who is casting a vote for leader; asking for identification should deter Conservative or NDP partisans who might be tempted to sign on as supporters in order to make mischief.

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The trick will be to find the right balance: acquiring enough information to identify voters without requiring so much information that people are turned off by the questions they're being asked.

Charging a fee, however, would be something else entirely. At least one potential candidate, former Chrétien cabinet minister Martin Cauchon, supports the idea, according to a report from The Canadian Press. (Mr. Cauchon is in Asia and could not be reached Wednesday for comment.)

Mr. Cauchon does not believe that fair-weather flibbertigibbets with no real attachment to the party should be allowed to participate in the vote. Charging a fee, however nominal, would deter the less committed from voting.

But it would also undermine the very principle of recruiting supporters. What would happen to the primary system if voters in Iowa or New Hampshire had to pay to cast a ballot?

The whole purpose the supporter class – a mass mobilization of voters behind a candidate – would be fatally compromised. Once again, party elites would be exercising control over the vote by limiting participation in it.

The executive seems to have heard that message.

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"I would be shocked if the board decided to charge a fee," party president Mike Crawley told the Globe's Gloria Galloway. "It's not something I would support as president." He believes making supporters pay to vote would undermine the whole idea behind the reform, "which is to make [the party] as open and inclusive as possible."

So it appears certain that the primary-like principle of broad-based selection of the next party leader will be affirmed. Everyone who wants to have a say in the choice will be able to have that say. Without having to take out their wallet.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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