B.C. Liberals boost rural vote strength

Shuswap MLA George Abbott is expected to benefit from the B.C. Liberal Party decision to switch to weighted voting that gives rural constituencies the same clout as more populous urban areas.

B.C. Liberal delegates voted overwhelmingly Saturday to change their voting system, giving rural regions equal say with urban populations in the selection of the next party leader and premier.

With all the leadership candidates in favour of the weighted voting system, delegates in Vancouver and at eight regional forums easily reached the two-thirds majority required to make the change. The final count was 1,319 party delegates in favour of the change, and only 23 opposed.

About 1,800 delegates gathered in downtown Vancouver for the vote, with more delegates participating at regional venues in Terrace, Prince George, Fort St. John, Kamloops, Kelowna, Cranbrook, Victoria and Courtenay.

The new voting system was recommended by the B.C. Liberal executive last fall, after Premier Gordon Campbell announced he is stepping down. It will assign 100 points to each of the 85 constituency associations, to be divided proportionally when party members pick a new leader on Feb. 26.

The weighted vote ensures that a constituency with only 100 members will have the same clout in the leadership choice as one with 1,000 members.

Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett, one of the early proponents of weighted voting, called in to the main convention in Vancouver from Cranbrook one of eight regional forum sites. He pointed out that 16,000 people voted in the last election in Kootenay East, compared with as many as 80,000 eligible voters in some Vancouver constituencies.

Having a weighted vote gives the B.C. Liberal Party a “huge advantage” over the NDP, which has only recently adopted a one member-one vote system.

Former Surrey MLA Gulzar Cheema, who is working on Mike de Jong’s leadership campaign, was among the few opposed to a weighted vote. He said it makes no sense that his vote would suddenly become more valuable if he moves from Surrey to Kamloops.

“If one consituency has been more active [signing up new members], why would you want to punish them?” Cheema said.

Shuswap MLA George Abbott has been the most vocal of the candidates in supporting the weighted system. Abbott has said maintaining a one member-one vote system would make it difficult for any candidate outside the Lower Mainland to win the leadership.

Before deciding on the weighted vote, delegates narrowly endorsed an amendment requiring each leadership voter to pick a minimum of two candidates on the preferential ballot.

De Jong urged delegates to support the requirement for voters to make at least a first and second choice, because he said it would help ensure that the leadership ballot produces a winner with majority support. Rival candidates Abbott and Moira Stilwell also spoke in favour of the two-candidate minimum.

Those opposed to the requirement included Langley MLA Mary Polak and Senator Richard Neufeld, the former energy minister and MLA for Peace River North.

“No one should be forced to cast a vote for a candidate they do not support,” Polak told delegates during debate.

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