Former B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson walks to the legislature before the budget speech in Victoria, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Voting to elect the next leader of British Columbia’s Liberals is underway as the party is expected to be in court Friday to face a challenge that asks a judge to delay the scheduled release of Saturday’s leadership results for 15 days. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Former B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson walks to the legislature before the budget speech in Victoria, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Voting to elect the next leader of British Columbia’s Liberals is underway as the party is expected to be in court Friday to face a challenge that asks a judge to delay the scheduled release of Saturday’s leadership results for 15 days. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Voting underway in B.C. Liberal leadership contest as party faces court challenge

Online and telephone voting started Thursday for the next party leader

Voting to elect the next leader of British Columbia’s Liberals is underway as the party is expected to be in court Friday to face a challenge that asks a judge to delay the scheduled release of Saturday’s results for 15 days.

Online and telephone voting started Thursday for the next party leader, replacing former leader Andrew Wilkinson who announced his resignation following the Liberals’ defeat in the October 2020 election.

Seven candidates are running for the leadership, including legislature members Michael Lee, Ellis Ross and Renee Merrifield; business leaders Gavin Dew, Val Litwin and Stan Sipos; and Kevin Falcon, a former B.C. cabinet minister.

Vikram Bajwa, a longtime Liberal party member, has petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court to delay the scheduled release of the leadership results while the party provides details of its audit of new memberships signed up during the campaign.

Kamloops Liberal member of the legislature Peter Milobar, the Opposition’s house leader, said the court action and concerns about party memberships have created tensions during the campaign, but he’s hoping they ease once a new leader is chosen.

“Everyone’s well aware leadership races, they ebb and flow, and they get a little bit more what feels like personal and testy at times,” he said.

He said these races can generate friction near the end because “everybody is within the same political family trying to achieve the leadership.”

Such campaign wounds “tend to heal fairly quickly,” Milobar said.

Bajwa’s petition seeks several orders by the court on top of the 15-day delay. They include a declaration that the party’s membership audit is incomplete and an order that the party reveal its conclusions on whether any co-ordinated voter fraud took place in the leadership race.

Party spokesman David Wasyluk said the party will be in court to respond to the petition, arguing it has taken reasonable steps to determine that new members are eligible to vote.

He said the court challenge will not impact the ongoing vote, which concludes Saturday afternoon.

The party gained more than 20,000 members during the leadership process.

Wasyluk said 1,140 of those were found not to be in compliance, while another 1,423 memberships were still being confirmed.

Concerns about new party memberships were also raised by several leadership candidates during the campaign.

Candidate Val Litwin said he sent a letter to the party last December outlining his doubts after his campaign reviewed data that included people giving an address on their membership applications in areas where there are no homes.

Representatives of the leadership campaigns for candidates Lee and Dew confirmed they sent a joint letter about membership misgivings to the party last month.

The letter said a preliminary analysis “suggests a significant portion of the membership should be flagged for audit in the range of 33 per cent to 50 per cent.”

Milobar, who remained neutral during the campaign, said the party is looking forward to a new leader and focusing on building a strong, united party ahead of the 2024 provincial election.

“We certainly know we have a hill to climb,” he said. “We have to make inroads in the Metro (Vancouver) area, and that’s no secret.”

The Liberals lost 13 seats in the 2020 election, including key ridings it held in the Vancouver area and suffered defeats in several Fraser Valley ridings, once considered Liberal strongholds.

— Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

RELATED: B.C. Liberals heading into 2022 with new leader, financial pressure

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