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With B.C.'s Nathan Cullen looking on, Toronto MP Peggy Nash responds to a question during an NDP leadership debate in Quebec City on Feb. 12, 2012. (CLEMENT ALLARD/Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)
With B.C.'s Nathan Cullen looking on, Toronto MP Peggy Nash responds to a question during an NDP leadership debate in Quebec City on Feb. 12, 2012. (CLEMENT ALLARD/Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)

As early voting begins, NDP hopefuls shift into high gear Add to ...

The seemingly endless race to choose a successor to Jack Layton finally kicks into high gear this week when nearly 130,000 federal New Democrats receive mail-in ballots and the information they need to cast their votes online.

That has sparked a new frenzy of campaigning by the seven people still in the race.

Brochures are being timed to arrive at NDP doors along with the voting package. Strategists are running through the myriad of scenarios that could play out before a winner is determined. And the camps are preparing to pressure supporters to mark their X – either literally or electronically.

There are four ways for NDP members to participate in the vote: In advance by mail; in advance online starting on March 1; on the floor of the convention, which will be held March 23 to 25 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre; and at home during the convention via their own computer.

It is a system that permits small movements of support on voting day.

“You can however influence a couple thousand people sitting at home, a couple thousand people in the room,” said Riccardo Filippone, the campaign manager for Peggy Nash. “And if they are close races, all you need is a couple of thousand votes here and there.”

But the early polls hold the key to victory.

When this method of voting has been used at the provincial level, campaigns have found that most ballots are marked in advance and some estimates suggest that between 80 and 95 per cent of the votes in this race will take place before the convention.

That’s the way the campaigns like it.

“It’s much more important to make sure that people vote [early]than to risk people going to the bathroom in between balloting sessions, or having to deal with a family crisis, or a health crisis,” said Joe Cressy, who is working for Paul Dewar.

New Democrats at both the provincial and federal level have, for a number of years, used a preferential ballot to select their leaders. It is a system that has been employed in several other countries, including Ireland and Australia, to elect governments and senates.

Each voter will rank the candidates from first to last – though they may opt against ranking all seven. The candidate who receives the fewest number of first-place nods on each ballot must drop out of the race. When that happens, the support of those voters who had that candidate as their first choice will automatically be transferred to the candidate who was their second choice.

If their second choice loses the next round, their support will go to their third-choice candidate, and so on. The balloting will continue until one candidate has more than 50 of the votes.

All candidates naturally want to be in the top three on the first ballot – a come-from-behind win from fourth place is highly unlikely. And they want to be the second choice of voters who picked the bottom candidates as their first choice.

All candidates are asking themselves “how strong is my first ballot support? And, if I am not going to hit that 50 per cent on the first ballot – which nobody is going to do – where are my number twos coming from? And how do I make sure that I increase them in the next week and a half?” says Mr. Filippone.

There are two more candidates’s debates scheduled between now and voting day. A showdown Sunday in Winnipeg was a more lively affair than its predecessors, with contenders being asked pointed questions by their rivals that highlighted significant policy divisions.

But taking off the gloves could backfire. “You don’t want to repel or say anything negative about candidates either because it might actually frustrate their supporters and they might just rank you last,” said Raoul Gebert, the campaign manager for Thomas Mulcair. “That’s sort of the tricky game right now.”

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