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the explainer

BC Liberal party lead candidate Mike de Jong responses to a question on HST during a breakfast forum with other party candidates in Vancouver January 18, 2011.JOHN LEHMANN

Just two weeks before members of the BC Liberal Party choose the province's next premier, about 1,800 party delegates are meeting to work out the voting rules.

The convention details are here.

If deciding the rules of engagement near the end of the campaign sounds a bit awkward, it is. The party hasn't had a leadership vote for 17 years, back when telephone voting was considered cutting-edge technology.

That's when Gordon Campbell won and transformed the BC Liberal Party into a coalition of the province's right-of-centre forces. Under his leadership, the party has held office since 2001. When Mr. Campbell announced last Nov. 3 that he was stepping down, the vacuum of succession planning soon became apparent.

What are the delegates deciding? Whether to keep the existing rules - a straightforward one-person, one-vote by the estimated 93,500 BC Liberal members - or move to a voting method based on ridings. The decision today will influence the outcome of the leadership contest on Feb. 26.

The party executive is proposing a change that still gives every eligible member a vote, but those votes will be weighted so that each of the province's 85 ridings is equally represented. In short, it will give rural and northern B.C. more influence in choosing the province's next premier, rather than allowing Metro Vancouver to dominate the decision.

All six leadership candidates have endorsed the change, but the change requires the approval of two-thirds of the delegates. Approval is likely - but not certain. Gulzar Cheema, a former Liberal MLA and a key organizer for candidate Mike de Jong, has promised to speak against the change, saying it devalues votes from strong Liberal ridings.

The party has allowed a maximum of two hours for debate, ending with a standing vote. The six candidates can be counted on to stand up in support of the new system, but will their supporters? The changes would help rural candidate George Abbott and likely wouldn't improve the chances of urbanites like Kevin Falcon.

What is at stake? Some party insiders argue the status quo would be fine, but others warn the party - which has lost some of its appeal in rural B.C. - would be shattered if this change is rejected, giving other right-of-centre parties a change to grow.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen supported the change 17 years ago, the last time the party tried (and failed) to change its voting system. He'll vote for the change and may step up to the microphone in debate if the proposal looks like it is in trouble.

Bill Bennett, the maverick Liberal MLA who first pushed for this change months before Mr. Campbell stepped down, will be voting in the Kootenays today, at one of the party's regional satellite conferences. His twitter feed is worth following.

At the same time, delegates are being asked to approve a preferential ballot. The party proposes that voting Liberals can make as many choices as they wish - ranking only one candidate, all six, or anything in between. Watch for an amendment to hit the floor, however, calling for a requirement that at least two choices be indicated on every ballot.

Who would want that? Why, any candidate who hopes to overtake frontrunner Christy Clark on a second ballot.

With or without the amendment, the first leadership contender who gets more than 50 per cent support on Feb. 26 will become B.C.'s 35th premier.

Once the vote is over, don't go away. The six contenders will take part in a debate that promises to be more engaging than the party's recent offerings. Negotiations were underway up to the last minute to " juice up" the format.

The primer: Premier Gordon Campbell's decision to step down followed a populist uprising over his government's decision to impose the harmonized sales tax with no warning shortly after the 2009 election.

The polls.

The timeline.