Do political parties need stronger rules for local nomination elections?


Recent reports have warned that local candidate nomination meetings could be vulnerable to foreign interference. But experts say there might not be an easy way to tighten the rules that govern those races.

Last month, Global News published a story reporting allegations that the Chinese government interfered in the 2019 Liberal nomination process in the riding of Don Valley North. The story cited sources who claim Beijing bused international students with fake addresses to the nomination meeting to vote for a specific candidate.

The Liberals and MP Han Dong, the candidate in question, have denied those allegations.

During a House committee meeting on Thursday, David Morrison, deputy minister at Foreign Affairs, cautioned MPs about some of the “intelligence” that has been leaked and reported in the media.

Candidate Han Dong celebrates with supporters while taking part in a rally in Toronto on Thursday, May 22, 2014.

Candidate Han Dong celebrates with supporters while taking part in a rally in Toronto on May 22, 2014. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

He said intelligence gathered by CSIS or other national security agencies “rarely paints a full or concrete or actionable picture. Intelligence almost always comes heavily caveated and qualified.

“It is extremely rare to come across an intel report that is concrete enough to constitute a smoking gun.”

Still, a report released Tuesday outlining the work of a panel of five senior public servants tasked with monitoring election interference during the 2021 federal campaign — a panel that included Morrison — flagged local party nominations as a source of concern.

“There were also concerns raised by some that some foreign states have supported potential candidates for Parliament who will promote the interests of the foreign state. They may receive assistance from agents of the foreign state to sign up party members to help the preferred candidate win a party’s nomination,” the report said.

WATCH | Deputy foreign minister on election interference: 

Reports on election interference are ‘rumours’: deputy minister of Foreign Affairs

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs David Morrison told MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee that intelligence reports ‘rarely paint a full or concrete or actionable picture’ as he disparaged media reports about foreign interference in elections.

Tuesday’s report said that attempts to interfere in the election didn’t affect the integrity of the overall vote and there was no evidence that Elections Canada itself was targeted.

Andrew House, co-leader of the national security group at Fasken Law, said that candidate nomination contests tend to face less scrutiny than general elections.

“It’s not that the rules aren’t strict. It’s that there are so many of these nomination contests occurring, they often happen so quickly [and] they are volunteer-run, by and large,” House said. “Those factors lead to conditions where people either don’t know the rules or the rules can be broken without sufficient scrutiny.”

McMaster University political science professor Peter Graefe pointed out that it’s fairly simple for someone to join a party prior to a nomination election — it can be done just weeks or even days before the nomination meeting.

“Our parties are very open organizations and so you don’t have to go through any kind of complex recruitment process,” Graefe said.

Parties generally require that those looking to join pay a registration fee and sign an attestation stating they don’t belong to any other party. Unlike general elections, party nomination contests do not require that voters be at least 18 and a citizen in order to vote — but voters must prove that they live in the riding.

Graefe said there are ways parties could tighten up the rules to prevent foreign meddling in their nomination meetings. But most solutions come with shortcomings.

One solution would be to require those who wish to vote in a nomination contest to sign up further in advance of the vote — which would allow parties to vet those voting more carefully. But that could deter people from joining up and lower overall participation, Graefe said.

“One of the ways that people join parties and become involved in political life is specifically to support a friend or a neighbour or someone who’s convincing them to support their candidacy,” he said.

Unlike general elections, a person doesn’t need to be a citizen or 18 to vote in a riding’s nomination race. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Another solution could be to apply federal election rules to candidate elections by verifying that nomination participants are on the federal voters list. But that also would prevent younger Canadians and permanent residents from getting their first taste of politics.

“That kind of participation is an important step towards a broader participation in elections,” Graefe said.

Mehmet Tohti, an advocate for Uyghurs in Canada, said preventing permanent residents from voting in nomination contests would also target communities that are themselves victims of harassment by foreign governments.

“We have to make that distinction. Many diaspora communities, they are not happy with Chinese [government] interference … intimidation and harassment,” he said.

WATCH | How Beijing targets Chinese Canadians through foreign influence operations:

‘It is nonpartisan and happening at all levels of government’: Cherie Wong on foreign election interference

“There is a climate of fear that already exists” in the Chinese-Canadian diaspora community, Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, told Power & Politics on Friday. “They have chosen to be silent because they don’t even want to put themselves at the risk of angering the regime.”

House suggested that a more exacting process of identity verification, or the use of technology to scan ballots, could help.

“It seems to me that there are technological solutions to prevent this, and each of the political parties should seek them out,” he said. “Perhaps Elections Canada can provide advice on how to achieve that technological outcome.”

Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perrault told the House affairs committee last week that Elections Canada’s role in the nomination process is limited to overseeing candidate registration and financing.

“The rules for nominations come under party authority and so if there was a problem, it would be up to CSIS to get involved,” Perrault said in French.

An Elections Canada spokesperson said it would take legislative changes to give the agency a larger oversight role in party nomination votes.

Parties themselves seem reluctant to make any significant changes to how their candidates are selected.

Judi Codd, president of the Liberal electoral district association in the Don Valley North riding, told CBC she finds the allegations in Global’s story “baseless” and Dong’s nomination was by-the-book. She said there’s no evidence that anyone was bused in and that everyone was required to show ID in order to vote.

When asked if the party would make any changes to the way it picks candidates, Liberal Party of Canada director of communications Parker Lund defended the process, saying that voters must prove they live in the riding using verified identification.

“Han Dong was nominated by registered Liberals in an open nomination process that complied with our national nomination rules, and we thank Han for his continued work championing the issues that matter to the people of Don Valley North,” Lund said in a media statement.

Sarah Fischer, the Conservative Party of Canada’s director of communications, told CBC that the party also has no plans to change its rules despite the recent reports.

“The Conservative Party of Canada will not be changing its eligibility criteria for voters in candidate nomination elections,” she said in an email.

The federal NDP didn’t respond to CBC by publication time.

House suggested one approach could be to simply ensure that those running or working on a nomination election are well-versed in the rules.

“It’s the old adage of, ‘If you see something, say something.’ Well, you can’t speak up if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” he said.

But Tohti said the focus should be on tackling disinformation spread by foreign governments, particularly on social media, rather than on tightening rules for nomination elections.

“Foreign powers behind [closed] doors are trying to Influence the decision-making process of … Canadians by using … social media platforms,” he said.

Tohti specifically called for more regulation of WeChat and Tik Tok, social media apps with links to the Chinese government.

Tuesday’s report specifically pointed to an article that circulated on WeChat during the 2021 campaign that falsely claimed a bill introduced by former Conservative MP Kenny Chiu would unfairly target the Chinese community. Chiu lost his seat in that election.

“We have to put some restrictions on [the] Chinese [government’s] propaganda machine,” Tohti said.

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