Just imagine: It's April 2013 and the Liberal Party has gathered in Ottawa to hear that their new leader is... Chuck Norris.
While that outcome may seem far-fetched, if the Liberals follow through with their plan to combine a new category of party membership with online voting, they may end up with an outcome just as ridiculous.
The new "supporter" category was created at the Liberal Convention in January and is aimed at widening the base of participants for the leadership vote, making it more like a U.S.-style primary. Anyone interested in the party can sign up online and 30,000 people have already done so.
If everything goes as planned, these supporters will vote for a new leader in exactly the same way as a full party member: in person or by mail, phone or internet.
It's the internet bit that's interesting because, judging from the history of web, online votes have a tendency to go hilariously wrong.
Just take the example of the Chuck Norris bridges.
Earlier this year, a regional authority in Slovakia launch an effort to name a new pedestrian and cycling bridge to Austria via an online survey. The result was an avalanche of votes for the "Chuck Norris bridge," in reference to the American action star. This prompted the assembly to go back on their original promise to honour the wishes of citizens and name it something else.
The Slovakian effort was itself inspired by an earlier bridge vote-rigging effort in Hungary partly engineered by American satirist Stephen Colbert.
The bridge in question connects the two sides of the Hungarian capital of Budapest and was also to be named via an online vote. Chuck Norris jumped to an early lead, but then Colbert instructed viewers to vote for him instead and to use whatever nefarious means necessary to achieve victory.
The result? Colbert won with roughly 10 million more votes than the entire population of the country. A second vote was organized, this time requiring registration, but Colbert won again. Authorities ignored the outcome and named the bridge something else.
While these stories may seem ridiculous, there is a very real possibility that similar tomfoolery could plague the Liberal vote.
The party has yet to figure out all the details, but supporters will have to sign up and provide registration details, such as an address, that will supposedly allow the party to verify an individual's identity and whether he or she already belongs to another political party. The Liberals have until March 17 to figure it all out.
But some in the party have already expressed fears the vote could be open to manipulation.
MP Joyce Murray, a likely leadership contestant, has suggested the Conservative party might sign up supporters in an effort to influence the vote, referencing allegations the Tories were involved in misdirecting voters to non-existent polling stations during the last election. She has suggested a fee might deter such a campaign, a measure which has been rejected by the party leadership.
It's not just the Conservatives the Liberals should be worried about. It's easy to imagine users on the website reddit or hackers from Anonymous banding together in a campaign to make one of the more obscure candidates party leader.
The Liberals have already taken one measure to stop just such an effort, imposing a deadline of roughly six weeks before the final vote for supporters to sign up. Theoretically, this will prevent webizens with ignoble intentions from registering just as the campaign gets really interesting.
Of course, in reality, debates will start in January and there is already plenty of buzz around the race (anyone heard of Justin Trudeau?). An ill-intentioned online campaign to influence the vote could be in the works already.
And such a campaign may be the least of the Liberal's worries. If the cyber attack that marred the vote at the NDP convention in March is any indication, conducting a leadership vote online, especially when the details are left until late in the game, is a dangerous proposition.
But success is possible. In 2000, Arizona Democrats conducted a presidential primary using an online vote. Despite lawsuits, security threats and problems with certain browsers, voter turnout increased 500 per cent from the previous primary and the election was hailed as a victory for democracy.
If the Liberals want to replicate the success in Arizona, they will need to move swiftly on the rules for verifying identities and the electronic infrastructure needed to support a secure vote. Even then, it seems the race could still be subject to a major pwning.
Just ask Chuck Norris.
Here are the 6 things you need to know about the Liberal leadership race for 2013.
The Liberal Party of Canada will hold an all-candidate showcase on April 6, 2013 in Toronto to kick off a week of voting before announcing the new leader on April 14 in Ottawa. Whoever wins will the seventh leader for the party 10 years.
There are at least eight people challenging Justin Trudeau for the title. They are: defeated Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay, lawyer and former professor Deborah Coyne (also the mother of Trudeau’s half sister), lawyer and failed Ottawa-area Liberal candidate David Bertschi, prosecutor and Vancouver Kingsway Liberal riding association president Alex Burton, the former head of the federal Liberals in B.C. David Merner and retired air force pilot and unsuccessful Ottawa-area candidate Karen McCrimmon. B.C. Liberal MP Joyce Murray and Montreal Liberal MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau are expected to announce their bids next week, sources tell HuffPost. Ontario Ministry of Finance economist Jonathan Mousley has also sent emails telling reporters he is considering a run, but has not officially declared his candidacy. So far, the party hasn’t officially registered anyone’s name. Some candidates, such as Bertschi, are still collecting the 300 signatures needed in three provinces and/or territories in order to enter the race.
The party expects for candidates to drop out before debates begin in late January and had made it easy for them to do so. Liberal Party President Mike Crawley told The Huffington Post Canada the party designed a three- stage payment structure for the non-refundable $75,000 entrance fee in order to make it “really easy” for weak candidates to drop out. “The whole idea was to allow more candidates to come forward and test the waters and then as the second and third payments come up, I think candidates will see how much money they raised and whether they have the support, and they may or may not decide to continue,” Crawley said. “It is very deliberate to encourage a lot of interest at the beginning but to narrow it down to those who are serious as we begin the debates.” Candidates must hand over $25,000 the day they officially register. Those who have registered must pay another $25,000 on Dec. 15, 2012 and a third and final instalment of $25,000 on January 13, 2013. That is also the last day for any candidate to join the race. As for the debates, the first will be held in Vancouver on Jan. 20. Other dates include: Feb. 2 in Winnipeg, Feb. 16 in the Greater Toronto Area, March 3 in Halifax and March 23 in Montreal. The party executive has yet to decide on the debate format.
The Liberal Party might charge you to attend a debate, their showcase in Toronto on April 6 or the announcement in Ottawa on April 14. Charging admission — especially for debates — is another controversial point the party’s executive still hasn’t decided on. Liberal insiders say this is nothing new, the party charged delegates $995 to participate in the 2006 leadership selection in Montreal and charged $25 for the public to attend candidates debates. Former Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, an organizer with Trudeau’s campaign, told HuffPost he hopes the party won’t charge people even a nominal fee to attend the debates. “I understand the desire of charging a fee for a service, but we are in the business of proposing to lead a country and generating excitement about our ideas and proposals and we need to make it as accessible as possible.” While, Crawley stressed no decision has been made, he said the party is looking at cost recovery options to fund the showcase, the announcement and all the debates. Since this is also the first non-delegate convention, the party is grappling with need to keep costs low. The party fears the candidates’ registration fee and the 10 per cent levy on all the money raised during the campaign may not be enough to keep the party in the black during this five-month race.
For the first time, Liberals are inviting non-members to vote for leader. But some in the party believe these supporters should still have to pay to cast a ballot. The party created a “supporter” category at their last convention in January 2012 that allows anyone who is interested in the Liberals to pledge their support online and vote for the national leader in April. So far, 30,000 people have signed up to be supporters. The supporter category is controversial. Some party members suggest only serious devoted Liberals should be allowed to cast a ballot and members and supporters should have to pay to vote in the race. Although the rules say a fee could be applied, Liberal Party President Mike Crawley told The Huffington Post Canada he is staunchly opposed to the idea. “This is not something that I support,” he said flatly Tuesday. “I would be surprised if we end up putting a fee on voting.” But some candidates, such as B.C.’s Joyce Murray, see value in having a nominal fee attached to a vote as a way of ensuring only genuine supporters cast a ballot. She also doesn’t think $5 will discourage anyone who wants to vote from doing so. “I think the principle of ensuring that supporters are real genuine supporters it is an important one and I leave it to the board to qualify supporters to ensure that our intention, which is that those are people who are genuinely in support of the Liberal Party, is what we are getting,” she told HuffPost Wednesday. Murray said that when the party opened up its leadership race, people understood there was a risk that some people from “for example the Conservative Party” would sign up as supporters in order to try to influence the outcome. The Tories, who are currently defending themselves from allegations that they purposefully misdirected voters to non-existent polling stations, are not above such tricks, she said. “It wouldn’t be surprising if they would have a concerted, strategic, co-ordinated attempt to change the outcome of this race. So we have to be practical and we have to have measures that as best as possible ensure that won’t happen,” she said.
Even if you sign up to be a supporter, you could still be denied the ability to vote. The Liberals are looking at ways of verifying that supporters are who they say they are. The aim is to ensure supporters live where they say they do (the votes are weighted by electoral district) and that they are not a member of another political party. Crawley said the party is not sure yet how they are going to verify everyone’s identify and their party affiliation. He said the party will ask supporters to register and to supply additional information but declined to elaborate. The party’s executive has until March 17 to decide on registration procedures.