How do Alberta’s political parties vet their candidates?

The Alberta legislature on Saturday, June 9, 2018.
The Alberta legislature on Saturday, June 9, 2018. Emily Mertz, Global News

As Alberta’s political parties get ready to start campaigning for next spring’s election, candidates are preparing to do some doorknocking and parties are recruiting for new nominees to possibly represent them in ridings across the province.

According to Elections Alberta, anyone can nominate themselves online to become a candidate for any of Alberta’s political parties, meaning the parties have to be vigilant when it comes to making sure the right people are joining the contest.

What follows is the nomination process, which can involve everything from a hefty questionnaire to doorknocking to perhaps the most important part: the vetting process.

Here’s a look at how Alberta’s major political parties vet their candidate nominees.

New Democratic Party

The first step for those hoping to become an NDP candidate involves a nomination package which details things like contest rules, what to expect in the vetting process and timelines. Contestants are also required to sign a confidentiality and non-disclosure form, which the party say is in place for privacy reasons.

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Contestants are asked about things like if they’ve been featured in the media and why, their business and employment history, their political pasts, their group and organization affiliations as well as any criminal past they may have.

“We want to know if they have blogs or other social media accounts that we’d want to take a look at,” NDP provincial secretary Roari Richardson said.

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Social media also plays a big role in the candidate vetting process and while Richardson said it’s almost impossible “to look at it all,” NDP contestants are subject to an extensive social media background search.

“What we try to do is discern their social media footprint,” Richardson said. “We ask them to disclose the formats online that they use and we do as thorough a search as we can through that online presence to see who they are.”

Contestants are asked to accept a friend request so vetters can see both public and private activity. The vetters, made up of party staff, will go back upwards of 10 years.

“In many cases, we go back into the early 2000s,” Richardson said.

Once a thorough search and review of all the information is complete, the contestant will be interviewed by Richardson — either by phone or in person — and all the information is presented to the candidate approvals committee which then decides whether to put them forward to the nomination contest.

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Richardson said that if need be, there would be a fact-checking process for answers given during the interview.

So what happens if a candidate makes it through the process and wins the nomination, but something has fallen through the cracks?

“It would depend on the item that fell through the cracks,” Richardson said. “Political parties and our committee always maintain the right to suspend a candidate if they feel they need to.”

When asked what the party’s biggest concern is when making sure candidates are thoroughly vetted, Richardson said the party wants to rule out any surprises.

“What we’re trying to do is avoid a situation in which we’re surprised by a piece of information,” he said.

United Conservative Party

“Leader Jason Kenney has repeatedly pledged a rigorous pre-screening of prospective candidates to ‘avoid the kind of ‘bozo eruptions’ that have derailed campaigns in the past and could again in the future,” UCP executive director Janice Harrington said in an emailed statement.

Harrington said all candidates are required to complete an extensive questionnaire as well as disclose all published online comments, submit police and credit checks, be interviewed by local candidate nomination committees and consent to research being done by the party.

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The questionnaire asks contestants to disclose all social media outlets which for they have a handle or ID and to include their handle and/or ID for each. It also asks for contestants to disclose all dating sites they’re a part of.

Contestants are asked to share if they’ve commented on news media comment sections, been involved in online discussions on controversial topics or if they’ve engaged in “sexting or other explicit behaviour.”

When Global News requested an interview with the party to learn more about the UCP’s vetting process, Harrington declined.

“I do not intend to publicly discuss our internal processes,” she said.

Alberta Party

If a person self-nominates via the internet for candidacy with the Alberta Party, and the party is notified by Elections Alberta, executive director Mark Taylor said his first step is a “quick blanket check” to make sure the person is “within the scope” of someone the party would consider. That check will look for things like racist or homophobic activity on social media, he said.

Taylor said most contestants come in through the party, rather than online, but still are subject to that same cursory check. All contestants are then asked to disclose their social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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Once candidates are into the nomination process, they’re subject to a more thorough social media check, a criminal background check and a 14-page questionnaire. Some will also provide reference checks, Taylor said.

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He said nominees will also go through two interviews — one at the local committee and one at the provincial level. The local-level interview makes sure the person is someone that could represent the party at a local level. If they win the nomination contest, they would move on to the provincial committee interview.

“They have to get through a series of checks to make sure that if they are a person that’s going to be a flag-bearer for the party that they’re covered on all bases,” Taylor said. “That they don’t just say what we want to hear, but they are truly and passionately having the values and the principles of the party.”

Taylor said the depth of the social media search can vary based on which committee members are doing the vetting, but generally speaking, the party will search back three to five years. The party asks the nominee to accept a friend request, allowing them to see both private and public posts.

“I wouldn’t say that anyone’s got a foolproof system, but we really do take the time to research and vet their social media to ensure that we don’t have any [incidents] occur,” he said. “Because if we don’t find [problematic posts], somebody else will.”

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Taylor said before the disqualification of Edmonton-area candidate Yash Sharma on Oct. 15, the party hadn’t had to terminate anyone’s nomination or candidacy — those who had dropped out of the race had self-eliminated.

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If something were to fall through the cracks, though, Taylor said, “We’ve always got the final opportunity that if we found that we’ve been misled… we have the right to withdraw a candidate’s candidacy.”

“It all depends on what [it was] that fell through the cracks,” he said. “The decision will have to be made; is this thing that we missed so egregious that the candidate needs to be terminated immediately or is this something that needs to be addressed in a particular light?”

Alberta Liberal Party

For those reaching out the Alberta Liberal Party to become a candidate, the party has a unique vetting process in that they use a third-party organization to do their checks, according to executive director Graeme Maitland.

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The party will give them the basic instructions on how to get nominated, which includes the nomination rules, getting member signatures, a deposit and information that needs to be sent to the third-party vetters. The third-party group does a criminal, civil and credit check on the contestant as well as a due-diligence check of things like social media.

Why a third-party group?

According to Maitland, it’s because the party wanted that “independent verification” that their candidates were in line with their party standards.

Maitland said the party has been using the third-party group since the Liberals’ leader, David Khan, was elected last year.

“There was an agreement that we should be doing background checks,” Maitland said. “This company had been used during the leadership election, and so we decided to continue that relationship.”

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Maitland said the third party will go through everything from Facebook to LinkedIn, reviewing things like what pages contestants are members of, photos as well as what things they’re posting and liking.

Maitland said he didn’t know specifics about whether the contestants were required to accept a friend request, but said, “We do request them to be open and proactive in their disclosure to assist us and the company.”

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The third-party company puts together a report which the nominations committee reviews. The contestant can then either be approved to run as a candidate, not approved or if something concerning is in the report, the committee can and will reach out to them to follow up before moving forward.

“We meet with potential candidates multiple times so there’s kind of an ongoing interview process,” Maitland said.

He said things like racist, misogynistic or homophobic posts, affiliations with supremacist groups and/or serious criminal offences would be cause for the party to turn a contestant away.

Maitland said in the lead-up to the next provincial election, “there is nothing in a vet that has come forward that has led us to deny a candidacy.”

When it comes to the party’s biggest concern with making sure candidates are thoroughly vetted, Maitland said “there’s always one more question to ask.”

“A vet can be so incredibly intrusive into a person’s personal life, but I believe that our vet is comprehensive and it is both broad and deep enough that I believe that if there was anything that would be considered disqualifying, that we would be able to find it.”

Green Party of Alberta

The process of becoming a Green Party candidate starts with an application and three questions: Have you been charged with a criminal offence? Have you been disciplined by a professional body? Is there anything in your past that could compromise your candidacy or the party?

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“A positive answer to any of those questions doesn’t necessarily mean a disqualification, but we do ask for clarification,” Green Party Leader Cheryle Chagnon-Greyeyes said.

Contestants must have the backing of three current Green Party members and are asked to submit a 250-word bio as well as information about things like business, legal or volunteer experiences.

When it comes to social media, Greyeyes said the committee — made up of volunteers — does a search, “checking to see where their alliances lie.”

“If they’re a strong social media person and they have a good following, that bodes well for the party,” she said.

The vetting process will look for red flags, reviewing things like what the contestant has posted about, liked or groups they may be a part of. Greyeyes said vetters will go back at least five years.

“We’re very careful and try to ensure their principles align with the Green Party principles.”

Greyeyes said there’s a “level of trust” in the contestants when it comes to disclosing things like comments on posts and groups they may be affiliated with on social media, adding that the application asks that they make those things known to the committee. She added they have legal aid at their disposal for fact-checking any information that’s given by the contestants.

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Candidates are also asked to come to regular gatherings — either in person or through video chats — as opposed to formal interviews.

If something does fall through the cracks, Greyeyes said the party would be “honest and open and admit that we made an error.”

She said they would look at the situation and come up with a mitigation plan depending on the severity of the issue.

According to Elections Alberta, there is no fixed date for the next provincial election, but it is scheduled to happen between March 1 and May 31, 2019.

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