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BC Liberal committee seeks to reassure voters after leadership candidates demand tougher audit of new memberships

Party organizers play down issue after six of seven campaigns question validity of at least 60% of party memberships sold since last May 1
Emily Norton/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The committee overseeing the BC Liberal leadership race, contending with complaints from six of seven contestants about the validity of its membership list, sought Tuesday to assure them and the public that it will root out any fraud.

Campaigns for all but the Kevin Falcon leadership drive argue that upwards of 60% of the more than 43,000 memberships do not comply with agreed-upon criteria for next month’s leadership vote. They want a much more exhaustive audit than the Leadership Executive Organizing Committee (LEOC) is so far conducting.

The committee released a statement Tuesday that played down the extent of the issue. So far, it stated, “no memberships have been cancelled” and “no party members have been expunged.”

The committee indicated that about 7% of the membership list has so far been flagged for follow-up before it can register to vote for the leadership. But sources in two of the complainant campaigns quickly reacted that it doesn’t mean the issue is confined to 7% of the membership, only that the party’s limited audit of about 10% of the membership is proceeding.

A separate letter sent late Monday to all seven campaigns, obtained by BIV, provides insight into how the committee and the campaigns are contending with the disputed membership data weeks before members elect a new leader. The Falcon campaign manager questions the complaints as part of the barrier to visible minorities trying to engage in provincial politics.

The letter recounts a conference call last Friday of the seven campaign managers. It notes that Tyler Pronyk, campaign manager for Gavin Dew, told the call that his team had enlisted an expert to determine that there were “incomplete” profiles of many new members, including “typos in email addresses, members sharing a phone, email, phone and email, having no email, having an out of province phone or no phone.” The letter noted campaign managers for Val Litwin, Renée Merrifield and Stan Sipos also raised concerns about the committee’s audit process of memberships.

It said Mark Warner, campaign manager for MLA Ellis Ross, noted a team member “knocked on a door in Victoria and was advised that four of five members said to live at that residence did not live there.”

In earlier correspondence, campaigns said they found members that held the same phone number and email address but different residential addresses in different ridings. Some had provided out-of-province phone numbers or addresses, and some addresses weren’t residences but were parking lots or forestry service roads. Campaigns noted that when they contacted newly minted members by phone or in person, many were unaware of their membership, of a leadership contest or even of the BC Liberal party itself

The letter to the campaign managers says Kareem Allam, the campaign manager for Falcon, “expressed the opinion that any complaints with the audit process in place were motivated by politics disguised as concern for the integrity of the vote. He pointed out that the more barriers to participation and the more onerous the audit process will ultimately lead to the undesirable result of disproportionately disenfranchising racialized voters.” Falcon himself raised concerns in a radio interview that the committee’s algorithm is identifying South Asian and Asian voters with large households unduly for audit.

BC Liberal party staff informed the committee that 70% of the new memberships involve “apparently racialized party members.” It continues: “As it is recognized that language barriers will undoubtedly impact some racialized new party members and increase the likelihood that they may be flagged in the audit process, the LEOC has been reassured by staff that supports are in place to assist members through the entire process and in a multitude of languages.”

But its statement Tuesday made clear that the committee “does not use any form of demographic characteristics to identify individuals for audit.”

Broadcaster Jas Johal, a former BC Liberal MLA, took to Twitter to call the campaign complaints a form of “structural and institutional racism.” He noted that in his experience the “front door or a seat at the table is not available to members of visible minorities in any meaningful way ... the only way for these communities, is to get involved in leadership races because it’s the only place for a level playing field in politics.”

MLA Karin Kirkpatrick, a supporter of the Falcon campaign, tweeted that the party needs to encourage diversity and “keep cultural bias out of how we are vetting membership.”

To mitigate foul play, the party required a prospective party member to supply a full first and last name, full address, birth date and an unduplicated phone number and email address or a witnessed document. The four-year membership had to be paid with a unique credit card or by cheque, again to avoid one person paying for a batch of memberships.

Reviews of the membership lists conducted by complainant campaigns questioned upwards of 60% of the memberships, including more than 14,000 of the 23,000 memberships sold since last May 1 when the campaigns and the membership drives went into high gear.

In its statement, the committee said several factors can prompt further review of memberships, including anonymized IP address, missing email addresses, missing phone numbers, a credit card that doesn’t match the member’s name or listed address, use of a non-Canadian IP address for membership purchase, or overuse of a single IP address.

The letter to the campaigns said that a leak of the complaints last week to the media contained “rather alarming and defamatory claims” with no evidence to support them. The committee believes this this kind of communication on the part of any leadership campaign is worthy of discipline.”

The vote to succeed Andrew Wilkinson as BC Liberal leader takes place February 3-5 in online balloting in which members can cite their choices as leader in order of preference. The votes for the lowest finisher on each ballot will be transferred to a voter’s next choice on the next ballot.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.