NEWS
05/30/2017 04:16 EDT | Updated 06/01/2017 19:48 EDT

The suspenseful moments before Andrew Scheer declared Conservative leader

TORONTO — Maxime Bernier was clutching his partner's hand so hard his knuckles were white, his brown leather brogues nervously tapping the floor.

Across the aisle, Andrew Scheer's daughter Grace was on his lap, her arms wrapped around his neck, and next to them, his wife Jill bounced their youngest child, Mary, kissing her squarely on the nose.

The gazes of both men were fixed firmly on the screen in the Toronto Congress Centre's main ballroom, where Conservative party officials were about to reveal the results of the 13th and final ballot and announce the party's new leader.

A few minutes earlier, both had been summoned backstage for a quick huddle to discuss what should happen after the results were announced.

Did they want to shake hands for the cameras? Hug? Each give a speech?

The clear goal was to project Conservative unity — once the announcement was made, the screen behind the winner would read "United."

The party's executive and the people overseeing the election felt pretty good about the process. Turnout was at record levels, and an hour-by-hour schedule drawn up for the actual vote count had been running according to plan.

The fact there would be no Stanley Cup playoff hockey game that night had taken some of the pressure off to have the results out before the puck dropped and TV networks would want to cut away.

That's not to say there wasn't any grumbling.

During a technical briefing weeks earlier, party officials had acknowledged that having 14 names on the ballot made for a complicated process, with the mail-in element of the vote leaving a lot up to chance.

"Better than fax machines, though," one quipped, a reference to the 2004 leadership race that allowed members to fax in their choices.

The Tories used a preferential ballot, allowing members to rank their choices from one to 10. In each round of counting, the candidate with the lowest number of votes was dropped, with each member's second choice counted as their first.

Many candidates demurred when asked if they were telling their supporters whom to rank second and third. Brad Trost's campaign, however, urged people to mark him first and Pierre Lemieux second. After that, party members were on their own.

Many, it appeared, would ultimately land on Scheer.

In the 11th round of counting, Trost had 14.3 per cent of the available points and was in fourth place. When his name dropped off the ballot in the next round, Scheer's total count jumped from 30.28 per cent on the 11th ballot to 38.36 on the 12th.

The 12th round would be candidate Erin O'Toole's last. With 21.26 per cent of the points, his name dropped off, with those votes being redistributed to either Bernier or Scheer.

O'Toole and Scheer's campaign teams said throughout the race that their supporters were coming from the same pool.

The final ballot turned out to be a test of how true that actually was.

After Bernier and Scheer returned to their families, and as the crush of media waited in front of them for the results, backstage, party officials were ready to tally the votes one last time.

The cannons were full of confetti, the bags of balloons ready to be unfurled. All they needed to know was the winner.

When the voting machine spat out the final totals — Scheer would eke out a victory by a single percentage point — there was one more check they wanted to do to: the popular vote.

The Tories used a points system. Every riding in the country was allotted 100 points, with candidates getting points based on their share of that riding's vote. That gives Nunavut's 52 members — who represent one riding — as much clout as ridings in Ontario or Alberta with exponentially more.

It's a system that works, said Chad Rogers, a longtime party strategist. "Every member had their say in every outcome — no backroom deals, no power brokers."

Others call it a relic of the merger between the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties in 2003; some have tried to replace it multiple times with a straight one-member, one-vote system.

It's likely to be reviewed at the party's next convention in 2018.

On Saturday, the party wanted to know the popular vote to make sure it mirrored the results. Should one candidate win the points and another the actual votes, the party would have a problem.

While 141,362 votes were cast in total, by the 13th round only 118,137 remained. The party said Monday that 62,593 were for Scheer, and 55,544 for Bernier. So he won the points, and the popular vote on that ballot.

Despite some media reports to the contrary, Scheer — a Saskatchewan MP and former Speaker of the House of Commons — was not aware of the outcome as he waited for the party officials to come back on stage.

As the crowd rustled around him, Scheer and his wife shared a quiet moment, their heads touching.

"I'm proud of you," she said.

When the results were announced, he hugged her hard, then pivoted towards Bernier.

The two men shared an awkward half-handshake, half-hug, big smiles on both their faces as Bernier gave Scheer a thumbs-up and offered his own assessment of his new leader.

"I'm proud of you," Bernier said. "I'm proud."