An experiment by the federal Liberal party to open itself up to non-members and allow so-called “supporters” to vote in its April leadership contest may end up being more an embarrassment than a success story for the party and front-running candidate Justin Trudeau.
With a Thursday deadline looming, less than one third – 89,000 – of the 294,000 new Liberal members and supporters signed up since the leadership race began have registered to cast a ballot. A party official said the Liberals are “on track” to register 100,000 by Thursday.
UPDATE: The Liberal Party of Canada said late Tuesday afternoon it will make a decision Wednesday about extending the registration deadline.
"The Leadership Committee, appointed by the Board, indicated that decisions pertaining to the registration deadline will be determined by the National Membership Secretary, who is taking submissions from all points of view and will make a decision by or before tomorrow," party press secretary Sarah Bain wrote in an email.
The failure to convert large numbers of new supporters and members into registered voters, most of whom signed up for free, prompted calls from both Trudeau’s campaign team and the Ontario wing of the party to extend the voter registration deadline and make several other changes to ensure an easier registration process.
The numbers also provide ammunition to critics inside and outside the party who have warned for months the supporter class, which was introduced last year to drum up interest and help build a larger database of potential donors and volunteers, would hand the Liberal Party of Canada over to people with only a fleeting interest in the party.
Bain said board membership, the leadership committee and staff across the country are working round the clock to convert supporters and members to voters.
“Staff here are incredibly focused on it, and incredibly happy with how well we are doing,” Bain said, adding that the party does not have a comparison because it has never done anything quite like this before.
But Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer said the disparity between the party’s overall supporter numbers and registered voters suggests a colossal failure of all the leadership candidates’ get-out-the-vote operations.
“You can’t come out with a number like 300,000 one week and a week later say, ‘oops, it’s really only 100,000.’ That just shows, that the other 200,000 were phony to start,” Lietaer said. “I really think they need to have two thirds to register in order to be credible.”
University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman said he’s not surprised by the low-registration numbers.
The supporter category “doesn’t bring people into the party, it gets people to press a button. That’s all it did,” Wiseman said. “It gets people clicking a button saying they like Trudeau, it’s no more than clicking on your Facebook page.”
Few people who signed up as supporters were probably aware they also had to register in order to vote in the race, he added.
Trudeau’s campaign team, worried that many of their 160,000-plus new supporters will not be able to vote for their candidate, wrote a letter to the Liberal Party of Canada’s leadership vote rules committee on Sunday urging the party to extend the registration deadline by one week.
“This is a big missed opportunity for the party... . It’s not just that it’s embarrassing for our team,” a senior Trudeau campaign official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Huffington Post Canada.
“Honestly, I know this is going to be hard to believe but this isn’t really going to affect the outcome of who wins and who loses,” the insider said. Rather, the Trudeau team fears many of these new supporters will be frustrated by the registration process and fail to engage with the party.
“People are basically saying that the Trudeau campaign can’t get their supporters registered. Well, the reason we can’t get our supporters registered is because the party has created a process that makes it very very difficult to do so,” the official said, declining to provide the number of registered Trudeau supporters thus far.
In a letter to co-chairs of the leadership vote rules committee, Cyrus Reporter, Trudeau’s representative, detailed a litany of problems, including:
- Less than five per cent of the 100,000 Liberal supporters and members who’d signed-up using a phone number rather than an email address had registered to vote;
- Possibly thousands will receive registration packages this week, giving them just a day or two to return it postmarked before the deadline;
- Some English-speaking supporters in Quebec have received registration packages only in French;
- Several people have had difficulty registering with outdated browsers;
- More than a hundred people claimed they hadn’t received an online registration email from the party despite having a valid email address;
- Several people had not received confirmation they were in fact registered after going through the process.
Reporter called on the party to hire an external firm that could set up a dedicated phone bank to contact every single supporter who had not yet registered. He recommended that the party develop a way for supporters to register by phone rather than only on the Internet or via regular mail and he suggested the party establish same-day voting and registration using an individual's photo identification to ensure that some supporters are not disenfranchised.
Trudeau’s team said that it has been voicing concerns for months but that the party has so far ignored the pleas.
“We have been playing nice and making our case very forcefully through that (candidate liaison) process and around that process, but nobody is hearing anything we are saying,” the senior Trudeau official said.
“The last thing we want, and we’ve tried to avoid this at all cost, is a public fight with the party... . We still think there is an opportunity to fix this, but the minutes and hours are clicking by pretty quickly.”
The insider said the Liberal party seems to believe that as long as Liberals register more people than the NDP (128,350 in their 2012 leadership race) everything would be “fine.”
”They think they are going to beat that number but our internal tracking shows that if things keep going the way they are going, we are going to be lucky to break 100,000 — somewhere between 105 and 110. But even if it is 130 - that is not the point, 130 would be fewer than half,” the official said.
Not that it will hurt Trudeau’s chances, said Wiseman, noting the front-runner is so far ahead that even if he retains only a fraction of his supporters, “(t)hey are going to win hands down on the first count.”
The Ontario wing of the Liberal Party, after hearing from several people who had trouble registering, passed a resolution Sunday calling on the federal party to extend the March 14 registration deadline.
Jason Cherniak, vice-president of communications at the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario), said the party appears to be a victim of its own success.
“I don’t think that anyone actually expected 300,000 people to be supporters in the end,” he said. “And now, the system needs more time (to register them) than was originally planned.”
Cherniak said he believes the Liberal Party will take appropriate action to ensure that supporters will be able to cast a ballot.
Bain said she was not aware of any discussions related to delaying the registration deadline.
Tuesday afternoon, Marc Garneau’s campaign contacted HuffPost to say it too had raised concerns about the weak registration numbers and was “supportive” of exploring the extension of the registration period and other options to register more voters.
Anne Dawson, Garneau’s spokeswoman who Monday had expressed confidence the Liberal Party of Canada was doing its utmost to register members and supporters, said Tuesday that their campaign was particularly concerned about the party’s elderly members, who had no email addresses and were unaware of the registration process.
Lietaer, the Conservative strategist, believes the Liberals’ lackluster registration numbers show the weakness of the supporter model, which allows anyone to join the party without having to pay membership dues.
Never mind paying $10 or $20, Lietaer said. “If you don’t have the attachment to the party to even click a mouse in order to vote, I mean it just shows that you were never really there to begin with.”
Despite the “ephemeral” nature of the supporter category, Wiseman believes the process was worthwhile because it helped Liberals reach out to potential sympathizers and drum up more enthusiasm for the Liberal leadership than a membership drive would have.
“I think hardly anybody would have signed up as a member. And that might have been a really disastrous loss for the Liberals,” he said.
Karl Bélanger, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s principal secretary, said it was too early to speculate on what the fallout would be. “We are looking with interest,” he said, on the phone from Washington, D.C..
“We love supporters; we prefer members,” he said of the NDP.
Trudeau’s press secretary, Kate Monfette, said their team had worked hard to sign up all these supporters and “it would be a shame if it doesn’t translate into registration.”
Joyce Murray’s campaign director, Ian Perkins, said his team is doing quite well getting its supporters registered, although he would not say how many have actually signed up. Despite some technical glitches, he said, Murray’s supporters were registering at “an acceptable rate” of 70 per cent.
“In many cases, you just have to walk them through the spam filters and things like that,” Perkins said.
“So far, we really haven’t had a problem. Our people are really quite motivated,” he added.
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Eleven-month-old Justin Trudeau, urged on by his mother Margaret Trudeau, crawls up the steps of an aircraft in Ottawa Dec. 5, 1972 to meet his father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau on his return from Britain.
Pierre Trudeau is saluted by RCMP Officer as he carries son Justin to Rideau Hall in 1973. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/14/justin-trudeau-cries-cried-photo-loyalist-college_n_2690299.html">Justin Trudeau teared up when he was presented with a framed copy while visiting Loyalist College in 2013</a>.
Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau delivers a right hook to his older brother Justin during a play fight in 1980 at Ottawa airport as the boys await a flight with the return of their father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. Nobody was injured. Justin was born in 1971 and Sacha in 1973 - both on Christmas day.
March 1979 photo of the Trudeau children: Michel (front), Alexandre (Sacha) and Justin (rear).
It was a big day for Dad, but a long day for the three Trudeau children. Left to right, Justin, Michel and Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau attended the swearing in ceremonies of their father Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister March 3, 1980 at Government House.
Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and 10 year-old son Justin walk toward a plane at CFB Ottawa on Nov. 7, 1982.
Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, left, watches as his 11-year-old son Justin swings on a chain during a tour of an old fort in the Omani town of Nizwa Dec. 2, 1983. Trudeau and Justin spent the day visiting the towns of Jebel and Nizwa 165 kilometres south of Muscat.
Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau's 11-year-old son Justin jumps off an old cannon while visiting a fort along with his father in the Omani town of Nizwa and Jebel.
Justin Trudeau and friend Mathieu Walker in the Sahara desert in October, 1994.
Justin Trudeau and friend Mathieu Walker in the Sahara desert in October, 1994.
Justin Trudeau with friends Mathieu Walker and Allen Steverman in Shanghai in 1994.
Justin Trudeau with friends Mathieu Walker (left) and Allen Steverman (centre) at the Great Wall of China in 1994.
Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau (L), his son, Alexandre (Sacha), ex-wife Margaret Kemper and son Justin weep as they leave a memorial service for their son Michel in Montreal in 1998. Michel Trudeau drowned after being swept into a lake during an avalanche in British Columbia.
Justin (left) and Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau lean out of the funeral train to show appreciation to mourners who turned out to pay their respects to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in Dorval, Que., Monday Oct. 2, 2000. Trudeau's casket was moved from Ottawa to Montreal for a state funeral. ()
Justin Trudeau is consoled by his mother Margaret after reading the eulogy for his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau during his state funeral in Montreal, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000.
Justin Trudeau delivers a eulogy for his late father Pierre Trudeau during the state funeral for the former prime minister at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000. Trudeau first caught the public heartstrings in October 2000, when he delivered a moving, deeply felt eulogy for his legendary father, weaving an emotional spell from inside the cavernous Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal.
Justin Trudeau breaks down on his father's casket after reading the eulogy during the state funeral for former prime minister Pierre Trudeau Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000 in Montreal.
Justin Trudeau gives a rose to a young girl, one of thousands of mourners who stood outside Notre-Dame Basillica in Montreal Tuesday, October 3, 2000 during a state funeral for his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
An enthusiastic Justin Trudeau talks to reporters during a news conference to promote avalanche awareness in West Vancouver Thursday Jan. 25, 2001.
Justin Trudeau stands at the base of a mountain near the evidence of a controlled avalanche at Lake Louise, Alberta, Friday January 12, 2002.
Trudeau with adviser and friend Gerald Butts in July 2003 at Virginia Falls, Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories.
Justin Trudeau carves through a gate during a celebrity slalom race in Mont Tremblant, Que. Friday, Dec. 12, 2003. Trudeau was taking part in a 24-hour ski-a-thon for charity organized by Jacques Villeneuve and Villeneuve's manager Craig Pollock.
Justin Trudeau spoke to students as Sisler High School about the benefits of joining the Katimavik Project on March 9, 2004
Justin Trudeau, son of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, leaves with his new bride Sophie Gregoire in his father's 1959 Mercedes 300 SEL after their marriage ceremony in Montreal Saturday, May 28, 2005.
Sophie Gregoire waves to the crowd as she arrives for her wedding to Justin Trudeau, son of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in Montreal Saturday, May 28, 2005.
Then-leadership candidate Stéphane Dion crosses paths with Justin Trudeau, a supporter of Gerard Kennedy, at the Liberal Leadership Convention on Nov. 30, 2006 in Montreal. The day after he won the leadership, Dion told Trudeau he needed his help and urged him to run.
Former prime minister Jean Chretien meets Justin Trudeau at the Liberal leadership convention, Friday, Dec. 1, 2006, in Montreal.
Justin Trudeau poses in London, Ont., on Tuesday, June 5, 2007 with a group of youth who participated in the Katimavik national youth service program that he has been actively involved in. The funny faces came from a request by a parent taking a photograph.
Justin Trudeau raises his arms in victory after being voted in as the Liberal representative in Montreal's Papineau riding, on April 29, 2007.
Justin Trudeau, then Liberal candidate for the riding of Papineau, on the campaign trail with his mother, Margaret, in Montreal on Sept. 23, 2008. Trudeau snatched the riding from the Bloc Québécois by 1,189 votes.
Liberal Justin Trudeau, then a candidate in the riding of Papineau, on the campaign trail in Montreal, Tuesday Sept. 23, 2008 with his mother, Margaret.
Then-Liberal Leader Stephane Dion chats with Justin Trudeau in Vancouver before boarding the campaign plane to fly to Ontario, Oct. 7, 2008.
Justin Trudeau apologizes for swearing at Environment Minister Peter Kent in the House of Commons Dec. 14, 2011.
Justin Trudeau poses in this official photo for his boxing match with Senator Patrick Brazeau.
Senator Patrick Brazeau, right, and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau take part in a weigh-in for a upcoming boxing match Wednesday March 28, 2012.
Senator Patrick Brazeau, right, and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau take part in a weigh-in for a upcoming boxing match Wednesday March 28, 2012, in Ottawa.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, left, fights Senator Patrick Brazeau during charity boxing match for cancer research Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Ottawa.
Senator Patrick Brazeau, right, and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau take part in a charity boxing match for cancer research Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Ottawa .
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau celebrates after he defeated Senator Patrick Brazeau during charity boxing match for cancer research Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Ottawa .
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau kisses his wife Sophie Grégoire after winning a boxing match against Senator Patrick Brazeau on Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Ottawa.
Liberal MPs, including Justin Trudeau, look on as Senator Patrick Brazeau holds a Liberal hockey sweater on Parliament Hill Ottawa, Monday April 2, 2012.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau trims the end of Senator Patrick Brazeau's pony tail out of respect in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill Ottawa, Monday April 2, 2012.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau announces he will seek the leadership of the party at a news conference, Tuesday, October 2, 2012 in Montreal.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau waves to the crowd of supporters as he holds his son Xavier and his wife Sophie Gregoire holds their daughter Ella-Grace after announcing he will seek the leadership of the party Tuesday, October 2, 2012 in Montreal.
Justin Trudeau, right, chats to his chief advisor Gerald Butts after taking part in the the Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Saturday, February 16, 2013.
Marc Garneau, left, and Justin Trudeau take part in the Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Feb. 16, 2013.