I strongly believe we need electoral reform in Alberta and that means, among other things, replacing the First Past the Post model with Rank Choice balloting at the constituency level, provincially, and even in local elections.
This voting model is most often used in leadership selection processes for provincial political parties in Alberta. As a result, second and even third choices on ballots become important in determining outcomes, including the leadership wins of Premiers Stelmach and Reford.
AN INTERESTING RANK CHOICE RESULT IN ALASKA
There is an interesting real-time example of this voting model coming out of Alaska. Alaskans chose to stop using the First Past the Post model in favor of the Rank Choice ballot approach.
The State of Alaska just held a Special U.S. House race using rank choice balloting for the first time. The results saw a Democrat Congressional win in Alaska for the first time in over 50 years. Mary Peltola, the first native Alaskan to be elected to Congress, defeated the Trump-endorsed Sarah Palin.
Republicans are claiming this voting model is disenfranchising citizens. Nothing could be further from the truth. The wishes of the population are more accurately reflected when given the chance to prioritize candidate choices.
Republicans accurately note that 60% of Alaskan votes were for the two Republican candidates. They claim that is not reflected in the election results that ended up with a Democrat winning.
However, even if the First Past the Post voting was still used, results show Peltola would still have won, with an even larger margin. The first ballot results were Peltola 40.20%, Palin 31.28%, and Begich 28.52, and the final results were Peltola 51.47% of valid votes, with Palin at 48.53%.
THE ALBERTA EXPERIENCE
Rank Choice is the way provincial political parties select leaders, including the current UCP leadership process. It will be interesting to see the consequences of second and third choices as those with fewest votes are eliminated at each stage, until someone achieves over the 50% level.
So what to look for in the UCP results? Here is some speculative foresight – not a prediction – on the possible outcome of the UCP leadership based on Rank Choice balloting. There are almost 124,000 eligible UCP voting members for this leadership contest.
But how many will actually vote? Is interest high enough to reach a high level of actual participation and how committed are members to individual candidates? How many members will only mark their ballot for one candidate and not express any second or third choices? How many will intentionally spoil their ballots in protest?
There are lots of unknowns and variables to consider. Back in May 2022 about 34,000 mail-in ballots were received in the Kenney leadership review vote. Kenney only got about 51% expressing confidence in his leadership. There was a well-organized, active campaign against Kenney so participation was relatively high.
These leadership campaigns are almost entirely about membership sales motivated by some policy pronouncements, the personality of the candidates, and the perceptions of their ability to win general elections.
What is unknown is the level of motivation for UCP members to show up this time and vote, but time will tell. In the meantime, let me explore some potential scenarios in the context of the Ranked Choice ballot process.
HANDICAPPING THE HORSE RACE.
Danielle Smith is reported to be the front runner in various surveys, so the presumption is the UCP leadership is hers to lose. The question is what kind of second and third ballot support will she have? Based on her radical ideas and authoritarian, separatist-sympathetic sentiments, it is safe to say, NOT MUCH. I expect the only second ballot support she will have will be from Todd Loewen. If she doesn’t win on the first ballot, she has limited to no growth potential from other candidates and is likely to lose if there is a count of second, or third choices.
Todd Loewen shares a commitment, along with Danielle Smith, to the astonishingly stupid Sovereignty Act. Mr. Loewen has virtually no support from other candidates; as a result, it is to be expected his supporters are likely to mark Smith as a second choice. If the count goes to third choice his supporters will then likely go to Travis Toews, because both are from northern Alberta and strong fiscal conservatives.
Travis Toews is perceived to be in second place on the first vote. That is because he is perceived as the preferred choice by the UCP Cabinet members, and the 51% of party members who supported Kenney against the leadership review vote. His supporters’ second and third choices will likely go to Brian Jean, but more likely to Rebecca Schulz. While Jean is a fellow northern Albertan, he is the ultimate anti-Kenney candidate. Toews supporters are more likely to be loyal to Kenney than being interested in avenging Brian Jean’s previous leadership loss to Kenney. Schulz has some serious endorsement muscle from former CPC interim leader, Rona Ambrose, and former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.
Brian Jean is largely responsible for stirring up the internal party opposition to Jason Kenney’s leadership, mostly at the grassroots constituency level. He replaced Danielle Smith as Wildrose leader when she was turfed by the Wildrose Party. Jean’s Wildrose base remembers Smith’s major betrayal of the party rank and file grassroots philosophy by a surprise crossing the floor to join the Prentice PC party. Jean is seen as mostly wanting revenge for losing the leadership of the “merged” PC and Wildrose to Kenney. That result is still under a continuing cloud of an RCMP criminal fraud investigation. If his supporters have a second choice, and many won’t, they will go to Toews as both a fiscal and social conservative, and a northern Albertan.
Rebecca Shulz, Rajan Swaney and Leela Aheer are all very interesting young, moderate, female UCP candidates. None of those qualities will help them have much success in this very traditional UCP conservative party. I expect the members who support them are committed to encouraging them and their political aspirations going forward. They are all running for a future position, name recognition and earned respect from the eventual leader. All are aggressively against Smith as leader. I expect their second ballot support will go to Toews and the best bet to beat Smith.
STRATEGIC POWER PLAYS
It will not be a surprise to see all of the trailing female candidates withdraw after the first ballot in an attempt to give Toews enough momentum to win on the second vote count. If that happens, expect Loewen to also withdraw after the first vote to get early help to boost Smith.
There is no place for Toews or Jean in a Smith government. There is no place for Smith and Leowen in a Toews government. Brian Jean has a habit of quitting if he doesn’t get his way, which means winning this time. If Jean does win, he will keep Toews close to help unify the party. He will not likely even approve nominations from Smith or Loewen.
The three moderate women will do better under Toews, be tolerated under Jean and be tokenized by Smith. They will all be reassessing their political futures and even questioning their desire to run in the next election based on the leadership results.
WHAT ABOUT THE WILDCARD UCP “MEMBERS”
The wildcard in all of this is how will those who are not UCP supporters but bought memberships anyway. What are their motivations and intentions? I suspect most will vote against Smith because they do not wish to strengthen the UCP. But that begs the question of where they will put their support.
Some will vote Toews because he is perceived as the easiest to be defeated by Notley. Some will vote for Jean because he has no hope of uniting Jason Kenney’s fragmented party. Some may vote for Loewen because, next to Smith, he is the most radical libertarian, and that is not an acceptable option in a general election.
Some may even vote affirmatively for one of the more moderate “other” candidates of Shulz, Sawney, or Aheer. I suspect most will simply not be bothered to vote. But time will tell. Regardless of the eventual UCP leadership winner, they will be the next Premier of Alberta and will inherit a majority government . That means the big loser in all of this is going to be Albertans, not the unsuccessful candidates.