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Ontario Liberal Party president Kathryn McGarry speaks during the party's annual general meeting in Hamilton, Ont., on March 5.Alex Lupul/The Canadian Press

Ontario Liberals have voted to scrap their system of delegated leadership conventions in a decision that unofficially kicks off a race to pick the new face of the party in advance of the next provincial election.

The party, trounced the past two times Ontarians went to the polls and left with just eight seats in the province’s legislature, held its annual general meeting in Hamilton on the weekend. Delegates voted in favour of changes to the party’s constitution that will allow all members to vote directly for their next leader, using a ranked ballot.

It’s a system most major political parties in Canada have already adopted, relegating weekend-long leadership conventions and the drama of multiple ballots and losing candidates throwing support to their rivals to the history books. The Liberals’ new leadership vote rules will also weight the results equally by riding in an effort to ensure regional voices are heard.

Ontario’s Liberals held power from 2003 to 2018. But they were nearly wiped out after the province soured on then-premier Kathleen Wynne and failed to bounce back in last year’s election under Steven Del Duca. Many members are hoping the new leadership process and the upcoming race will spark a revival.

That battle started to come into sharper focus on the weekend as prospective candidates and their teams of supporters shook hands, socialized in hotel hospitality suites, and handed out buttons and pamphlets.

Those either poised to run or considering a bid include: Yasir Naqvi, a federal Liberal MP and former Ontario attorney-general under Ms. Wynne; Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, also a federal Liberal MP; Ted Hsu, the MPP for Kingston and the Islands; and Stephanie Bowman, the MPP for Don Valley West, Ms. Wynne’s old riding.

Don Valley East MPP Adil Shamji has not ruled out a run. Neither has Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who also attended the weekend meeting. A group of Liberal heavyweights had endorsed a bid to recruit Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner but he spurned the offer last month.

Liberals point to the weekend’s AGM as a hopeful sign, with party officials saying about 1,500 turned up, the largest number in decades – even with Friday night’s snowstorm.

But many in the party acknowledge it faces a long road before it is ready to face off in the next election in 2026 with Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford and NDP Leader Marit Stiles, whose party is the Official Opposition and won 31 seats in last June’s vote.

A large number of Liberal riding associations across the province were essentially left dormant after the drubbing the party received in 2018, with efforts to recover hampered by COVID-19.

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Mr. Naqvi said the change to the leadership rules is a big step for the party’s rebirth. But he said there is much more to do, acknowledging that as many as 30 riding associations “may just exist on paper.”

“I’ve been very honest with people that there’s no sugar-coating in terms of how much hard work we need to do on the ground,” he said.

The party also elected a new president, former cabinet minister Kathryn McGarry, and a new executive council. They must now sort out when the leadership vote takes place. Ms. McGarry told reporters on Sunday it was too early to say when it would happen. A longer runway could allow more time for Liberals trying to convince Ms. Crombie or other candidates to enter the race.

In an interview, Mr. Erskine-Smith urged the party to pick a new leader by the end of the year.

“There is no time to waste. If we want to make the change that is absolutely necessary, we have to start yesterday, building a really serious team in every corner of the province,” he said.

Ms. Bowman, a former bank executive and a rookie MPP, said in an interview that she is “seriously exploring” a bid for leader and would take what she calls a centrist approach that would focus on the economy. She said she hoped to attract moderate Liberals who she said were “left behind” in last year’s more left-leaning campaign.

Some moderate voters in her midtown Toronto riding told her they were puzzled as to why a former banker was running for the Liberals, she said, because the platform emphasized social issues rather than economic policies.

“People were not identifying; they didn’t feel at home in the Liberal Party, those kinds of moderates,” she said Sunday.

The new voting system chosen on the weekend includes a weighting provision that will assign 100 points to each riding association across the province and allocate them to candidates based on the proportion of members in each riding who vote for them. Liberal youth associations will also be given 50 points each.

Some in the party’s old guard had previously clung to the delegated convention system. In 2019, a similar one-member, one-vote proposal was defeated before the party chose Mr. Del Duca. The idea then was supported by 57 per cent of delegates, but still failed as it needed two-thirds support. This time around, it passed by a show of hands, as support on the floor was overwhelming.