There are a lot of things about America and Americans that I admire. This includes the Blues, Rock and Roll, and the Sopranos to mentions three things that come to mind. Having watched the still ongoing primaries however I am envious.
Now while many of us don't like the party system, the bottom line is that while occasionally independent candidates do well at the constituency level, nationally most independent candidacies are quixotic runs by wealthy men who can afford to do so. (Ross Perot with all his money failed to get a single electoral vote in either election; he did probably help Clinton get in at least once for which we are grateful.) It is not possible to get elected President, Prime Minister, Premier, Chancellor, Dictator for Life without the nomination of a political party.
In Canada, our party leaders who are the closest thing we have to presidential nominees are chosen thru a much more byzantine system. Stephan Dion, the leader of the Liberals could very likely be the next Prime Minister, if not this election, the next. Lets look at how he got there.
Each federal riding gets a certain number of delegates to the leadership convention. In addition party officials get a certain number of delegates but it is the votes from the individual ridings that make a difference. To be able to vote for a delegate, you must be a member of the party and live in that constituency. In the old days party members were committed supporters of the party, who met regularily, attended policy conventions, raised money and worked their asses off at election time. Their reward was that they got to nominate the candidate for their riding and also for delegates at leadership conventions. A large constituency association would have less than 100 members.
Some time in the past 25 years, someone figured out that if you wanted to nominate your candidate or elect your slate of delegates, all you had to do was to sign up some more members who would vote for your people. For example when I was in university, a girl I knew a little was busy getting drunk when two men in suits walked up to her and started talking. They eventually asked her if she knew anyone living in the same residence as she did and she named names. The result was that about two weeks later I received a fully paid up membership in the Liberal party and an invitation to vote in the upcoming nomination meeting. I was more principled at that time.
This has now gone way beyond the point of approaching university girls and meetings to nominate candidates or to elect leadership delegates now routinely have over 1000 members. What will happen is that the various candidates will try to sign up as many new members as possible. While I got my membership paid for me, theoretically the new member is supposed to buy his own membership. These have become ridiculously cheap usually in the $5.00 range.
With the need to sign up hundreds of delegates, talking to drunk girls in bars while fun is terribly innefficient. What you need is to be able to sign up a whole lot of members at the same time. So what most Canadian politicians do now is they go to evangelical churches, Sikh temples, or immigrant groups. Sometimes, as did Brian Mulroney in his leadership battle with Joe Clark, they simply go to a homeless shelter and bus in the inhabitants, new membership card in hand, to the nomination meeting.
So this is what the various candidates for the Liberal leadership did. They all signed up as many members as they could. These members showed up to the delegate selection meeting to vote for a slate of delegates committed to their candidate. Because each riding elects its delegates on a winner-take all basis, this means that frequently a candidate with between 30 and 40% of the members would get 100% of the delegates.
At the actual convention no candidate got 50% on the first ballot so that meant that as less successful candidates where elimated, they would endorse one of the remaining candidates which would mean most of their delegates would go to that candidate.
In this fashion, the Liberals elected their leader who has a good chance of being Prime Minister sometimes in the next year.
The Conservatives are slightly different. Rather than elect slates of delegates at the constituency level, each member gets to vote directly for the leader. I seem to remember that the votes may be weighted by province or constituency. The process is the same however; each candidate tries to sign up as many new members as possible.
A leadership campaign should be a time when there is a discussion of policy and people can chose who they vote for based on the strengths of the candidate. I have been watching the speaches of the candidates in the US primaries on CNN and while I am not naive enough to believe that these glowing words will translate into acutal action it certain is inspiring. In Canada however while leadership candidates actually make speaches, have townhall meetings, debates etc, we all know the real action is at the churches, temples and homeless shelters where votes are being signed up en mass. When the leadership race ends so does the involvement with the party. I doubt many of them even vote for the party they joined. (Some of them can't vote, most parties allow landed immigrants and minors to vote).
Back in 1992 the Albert Conservative party elected a new leader. Rather that having a nominating convention as they had in the past, they announced that anybody who purchased a $5.00 membership could vote. The winner would become premier. As you probably have figured out now, I have never and will probably never vote Conservative. But the novel experience of being actually able to directly vote for the premier was too good to resist and so I paid up my $5.00 and voted in the election and again 2 weeks later in the run-off. I never renewed my membership but I got phone calls and written material from the party for years afterwards.
Now there are a lot of problems with the primary system in the US (the huge expenses, the length, the way a small pluralty becomes magnified into a major victory) but the bottom line is that in most states every person who wishes to vote is able to vote for the nominee of his party (and in some states for both parties). They don't have to pay $5.00 although they may have to register. And they sure don't get bothered with phone calls and mail afterwards.
And for that I am envious.