Vote counting starts Thursday in contest to pick next Conservative leader

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OTTAWA — The Conservative party is giving itself a head start on counting the hundreds of thousands of ballots it received to determine who will be its next leader.

Tuesday was the deadline for party members to return their mail-in ballots to Conservative headquarters in downtown Ottawa.

Out of some 678,000 party members eligible to vote in the contest, more than 400,000 ballots were returned — a record-setting figure for a Canadian political party.

The sheer size of that membership list meant party officials had to plan for how all those ballots would be counted in time for the new leader to be named at an event in Ottawa Saturday evening.

The party is setting up12 tabulatorsto begin the process of counting ballots on Thursday, once the paperwork submitted with the ballots is verified.

There was an hours-long delay in delivering the results during the last Conservative leadership contest in 2020, when machines damaged thousands of ballots and former leader Erin O'Toole's victory was announced after midnight.

Saturday marks the end of the race to replace him, with five competitors vying to take the party's top spot.

Many in the party expect longtime Conservative member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre to win, in part because his campaign says it sold more than 300,000 memberships to his supporters.

The campaign of former Quebec premier Jean Charest, meanwhile, says those it signed up for memberships have also turned out to vote. Charest's team maintains he has support in regions that are crucial to a win, including Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Leslyn Lewis, like Poilievre, campaigned on defending those who opposed COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates. The Ontario MP placed third behind O'Toole in the 2020 leadership contest and came into the current race with popularity in the party's Alberta and Saskatchewan grassroots, as well as in its socially-conservative wing.

Rural Ontario MP Scott Aitchison is also in the race, as is Roman Baber, a former MPP in that province.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2022.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press