Conservative leadership candidates Jean Charest and Pierre Poilievre wait at their positions as other leadership candidates take to the stage at the start of a debate at the Canada Strong and Free Network conference, Thursday, May 5, 2022 in Ottawa. The Conservative party is giving itself a head start on counting the tens of thousands of ballots it received to determine who will be its next leader. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Conservative leadership candidates Jean Charest and Pierre Poilievre wait at their positions as other leadership candidates take to the stage at the start of a debate at the Canada Strong and Free Network conference, Thursday, May 5, 2022 in Ottawa. The Conservative party is giving itself a head start on counting the tens of thousands of ballots it received to determine who will be its next leader. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Counting ballots to determine next Conservative leader to begin Thursday

The Conservative party is giving itself a head start on counting the hundreds of thousands of ballots it received to determine who will be its next leader.

Tuesday was the deadline for party members to return their mail-in ballots to Conservative headquarters in downtown Ottawa.

More than 400,000 ballots were returned — out of some 678,000 party members eligible to vote in the contest, which is a record-setting figure for a Canadian political party.

The sheer size of that membership list meant party officials had to plan for how all those ballots would be counted in time for the new leader to named at event in Ottawa Saturday evening.

The party is setting up tabulators to begin the process of counting ballots Thursday.

There was an hours-long delay delivering the results during the last Conservative leadership contest in 2020, when machines damaged thousands of ballots and former leader Erin O’Toole’s victory was announced after midnight.