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When the representatives for the six BC Liberal leadership candidates met in a Vancouver boardroom this week to hash out details for the final weeks of the campaign, a challenge to disclose dirty laundry was tossed out on the floor: Anything else we ought to know?

In the span of less than a week, the party's 50,000 new members have been found to include a junior hockey team, a cat and signups fueled by a restaurant's iPad incentive. All ham-fisted attempts to bolster membership sales, but the examples have put the party on the defensive over its ability to ensure that B.C.'s next premier wins a clean victory on Feb. 26.

Under pressure, the BC Liberal Party has brought in an external auditor to sample the lists to ensure they are genuine. But the auditor is not going to reach all the new members before the leadership vote - leaving the main machine for screening in the hands of the candidates.

The better-funded campaigns have phone banks and other means of mass contact with the party's membership, which currently numbers 93,500. Their focus is on securing support, wooing the undecided, and reaching out to rivals' supporters to at least capture their second choice. But those canvassers also have the best handle on how solid the membership list is and how many new Liberals would be surprised to learn they'd joined.

However, the BC Liberals won't disclose how many errors they are finding, whether through their own scrutiny or as a result of tips from the campaigns. Little wonder there are some calling for Elections BC to take over the party membership lists.

What the Liberals should be afraid of is the experience of the BC New Democratic Party a decade ago. Ujjal Dosanjh won the leadership and became premier, but his victory was mired in controversy about mass signups that left the party bitterly divided. It is not the only reason why the BC NDP was virtually wiped out in the 2001 election - but it sure didn't help.

The contenders for the BC Liberal leadership have brought in experienced campaign advisers from across the country, but the party itself has little expertise in this field. There was no evident succession planning either - it was unthinkable that Gordon Campbell, leader for 17 years, might quit. So when he did make his startling resignation announcement last November, the party had to scramble to put together the contest.

Even now, with a little more than two weeks before the vote, the party is still working out critical details of how its next leader will be chosen. It has a heap of new membership applications that need to be processed, and if certain canvassers have been turning in suspect work - such as the 20 members of the Kamloops Blazers hockey team signed up without their knowledge by a Kevin Falcon supporter - the party hasn't got a system in place to track down the bad apples and hold them accountable.

Chad Pederson, the party's executive director, would not say how many Liberal membership applications have been vetted, and more importantly, how many have been identified as suspect. The party's review has been expanded in the past week, but it is also relying on the various camps to report questionable memberships. "The campaigns have been bringing issues to our attention that we have been flagging," he said, but none has been cancelled yet.

Veteran campaign tactician Rod Love, who is working on Mike de Jong's leadership bid, maintains the process is sound, and the fuss over a few examples of fraudulent signups is overblown. "You get overzealous volunteers in every campaign," he said. "And people are trying to turn it into Watergate."

From his vantage point on the inside of the campaign, Mr. Love is confident because his team hasn't noted any remarkable irregularities. "What we are finding mostly is, 'Would you all stop phoning me?' "

But from the outside, the BC Liberals have yet to demonstrate that their voting process is sound.

Here's what is at stake: The party must start mailing out personal identification numbers soon - likely in the next week - to allow members to vote by telephone or over the Internet on Feb. 26.

It will be handing over voting rights to choose the province's next premier even as the campaigns are still working through the lists. There is little doubt there are more examples of overzealous - the party bluntly calls it fraudulent - signups on those lists, but the chances of catching them diminishes by the day.

Especially if the contest is close, the victor will not want any hint of foul play hanging over the vote.

Party carefully screening new recruits for 'paw prints'

The BC New Democratic Party is also busy screening its new members before the party's Apr. 17 leadership vote. With smaller numbers and more time - not to mention more experience than their BC Liberal rivals - the NDP can report some progress.

Jan O'Brien, provincial secretary, said this week that the party has contacted 10 per cent of its 12,000 new and renewed membership applications filed on paper. (There were thousands of online memberships too before the Jan. 17 cutoff.)

Campaign insiders say the party has already tossed a "couple of hundred" memberships that came in without signatures, but Ms. O'Brien is mum on one key detail: She will not say how many of the 1,200 applications checked so far have passed muster.

The party introduced a number of changes after its leadership contest in 2000 to ensure better tracking of membership signups. Membership forms were handed out in books of 20, and canvassers had to sign off on their forms.

No one has been disqualified yet, Ms. O'Brien said. "So far no paw prints, but we are on the lookout."

Justine Hunter

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