An election held by a political party’s local riding association among its members to nominate (choose) its candidate in an upcoming election, similar to a local primary in the US. While a nomination meeting was once a small meeting of local party members, today’s nominations are often similar to actual elections, some with many thousands of attendees. Only party members living in the riding can vote at a nomination meeting. Thus, one of the most important elements of a nomination campaign (as in a leadership race) is signing up members in support of a candidate. This can be a nasty business, leading to nomination victories that are less about a candidate’s appeal than their organizational savvy. Indeed, many “star candidates” have been shockingly defeated by lesser-known rivals who outhustled them.
Incumbents expect, and are often guaranteed, re-nomination. Yet this isn’t always the case; in 2004 members of Liberal leader Paul Martin’s team backed challengers to longtime Liberal MPs such as Sheila Copps and Charles Caccia. What to do about incumbents is something of a “no-win” situation for parties. Protecting incumbents looks anti-democratic, while not protecting them risks igniting internecine warfare and benefits challengers who have more time to campaign than sitting MPs. Some parties give leaders limited or unfettered power to appoint candidates, bypassing a nomination battle. Many Liberals supported Jean Chrétien using it bar anti-abortion activists. Yet it eventually came to be seen negatively, prompting Justin Trudeau to promise “open nominations” in 2013. Whether he’s kept this promise depends on whom you ask.
While state electoral authorities run party primaries in the United States, Elections Canada has no such involvement. Rules governing nominations are entirely in the purview of parties, which decide key details such as the meeting’s time, voting location and the deadline to enroll as a member. Timing for the vote is crucial, as an accelerated or delayed vote can have a significant impact on a candidate’s fortunes, leading to allegations of party leadership putting their thumb on the scale to assist a favoured candidate. Membership fees are similarly controversial; reports of candidates paying for their voters’ memberships are commonplace in all parties. The Ontario PCs recently discovered that a third of their supposed 200,000 members – most recruited to support nomination candidates – didn’t actually exist.
These problems have proliferated over the years. The Ontario Liberals’ nomination of an NDP MP in the 2015 Sudbury by-election – dispatching a party loyalist in the process – ended up in court, a sad example of the criminalization of politics. Despite Trudeau’s “open nominations” pledge, many of the Liberals’ pre-2015 nominations were marred by disgruntled candidates, lawsuits, brawls and police being called. The Ontario PCs have endured several nomination debacles, with allegations of ballot box stuffing and criminal investigations. Something of a paradox – nomination meetings are both a critical hurdle for prospective MPs and one of the most chaotic and dirty parts of federal politics.
Image: The Liberal Party’s nomination meeting in Ottawa-Vanier, February 2017 (The Ottawa Citizen)