Supporters take their seats during the opening night of the federal Conservative leadership convention in Toronto on Friday, May 26, 2017. A final winner will be picked to lead the Conservative Party of Canada on Saturday night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Decision day for Conservative leadership

TORONTO — Voter turnout for the Conservative party’s leadership race sits at just over 50 per cent as members continued to cast ballots Saturday to select a new leader.

Party official say 132,000 ballots were mailed in by Friday; with party membership at 259,000.

It puts the race on track to beat the party’s only other leadership contest in voter turnout.

In 2004, about 37 per cent of the party’s then-250,000 members voted for Stephen Harper, who would go on to lead Conservatives to two minority governments and a majority one, before losing that in 2015.

Sixteen people were at one point vying to replace him but only 13 survived until the end of the contest and their supporters gathered Saturday at the Toronto Congress Centre to cast their own ballots and encourage others to do the same.

The line of voters moved easily through the cavernous voting hall, with many party members emerging from marking their choices optimistic about what is ahead for the party.

Longtime member Mike Salterio, who came to the convention from Halifax, said he was most enthused about how many young people appear to have engaged in the race.

“That means right across the country we are starting to attract younger people,” he said.

“Us older guys, it’s time to step back a little bit and let them do it.”

A key theme during the campaign from many contenders was the need to attract younger people into the Conservative fold and at least one leadership candidate said he intends to make that his mission after the race is over.

The future of the party needs to be a big blue tent party, Deepak Obhrai said.

“We are still lacking and there is room to grow,” he said.

The idea that all conservatives have a home in the party seem to be tested early Saturday, when front-runner Maxime Bernier’s campaign circulated a fundraising email suggesting the candidate was keeping a list of those who backed his campaign from the beginning and asked people to donate so they too could be on it.

Another candidate, Lisa Raitt, circulated her own last minute blast riffing off the themes in her final remarks — that the party needs to find a way to come together as soon as the new leader is chosen.

“We need to build on the coalition that Prime Minister Harper created, not tear it apart,” she said.

Other candidates take a different view.

“We do not need a leader to unite us, because we are not divided,” said candidate Erin O’Toole in his final address.

“Nothing shows the strength of our party better than this leadership race and the 16 exceptional men and women who stepped forward to lead.”

Three have since dropped out: Winnipeg physician Dan Lindsay, former cabinet minister Tony Clement and celebrity businessman Kevin O’Leary.

His name, however, remains on the ballot as he dropped out too late to have it withdrawn.

He’s still expected to nab some votes; the Conservatives are using a preferential ballot allowing members to rank their choices from one to ten.

If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote on the first count, the last-place contender is eliminated and his or her supporters’ second choices are counted until one emerges with a majority.

The majority however is not achieved in votes but in points. Every riding in the country is allocated 100 points, and how many each candidate gets depends on their share of votes in that riding.

Most expect several rounds of counting to be required Saturday before a winner is declared.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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