Edmonton

14,000 UCP members already signed up to vote on Jason Kenney's leadership

Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party is expecting up to 20,000 of its members to register for an April 9 vote that will decide the fate of Premier Jason Kenney as leader. 

Party expects up to 20,000 people to vote in review April 9

"Do you approve of the current leader?" Members of Alberta's United Conservative Party will vote next month on Jason Kenney's leadership. (Jeff McIntosh/ The Canadian Press)

Alberta's governing United Conservative Party is expecting up to 20,000 of its members to register for an April 9 vote that will decide the fate of Premier Jason Kenney as leader.

As of Sunday, 13,718 members had registered for the leadership vote, UCP executive director Dustin van Vugt said in an email Sunday to constituency presidents.

The cutoff to sign up new party members for the vote was Saturday at midnight and Kenney's supporters — and his opponents, including newly-elected MLA Brian Jean — were campaigning hard to get new members registered in time.

With three weeks to go, registration for the event remains open and the number of party members attending is expected to surge, van Vugt said.

Party membership has more than doubled in advance of the vote, he said. 

"It's not unreasonable to predict that we could get as high as 20,000 people, which is the same crowd Garth Brooks got each night on his record-breaking run through Edmonton a few years ago," van Vugt said in his Sunday email.

"We are currently at over four times the size of the last record-setting political event in Alberta, our founding convention in Red Deer in 2018 with 2,800 attendees."

If Kenney receives less than 50 per cent of the vote, he is out as party leader.

The vote is currently scheduled for the Cambridge Red Deer Hotel and Conference Centre.

All 241 rooms are sold out. The conference room is designed for about 2,000 people. The RCMP said last week that Mounties would help manage crowds and traffic around the venue.

The UCP has not answered questions from CBC News about how it would handle the Red Deer crowd.

But with registrations for the one-day event far outstripping capacity at the hotel, the party plans to share more details on the logistics of the vote in the week ahead.

"Our team is working day and night with outstanding party volunteers to ensure that our members' voices are heard," van Vugt said in his email.

In an email to CBC News on Monday, UCP spokesperson Dave Prisco reiterated that the logistics of the vote are still being worked out. Party meetings are happening every day but no board meeting had been scheduled for Monday, Prisco said.

Calgary political strategist Stephen Carter said a one-day vote in Red Deer would be logistically impossible.

The venue wouldn't be able to handle the large crowd, and for the party to complete the vote in a six-hour window, it would need to process about one vote every second, Carter said.

Satellite voting stations should be installed to ease the capacity issue, he said.

But if satellite locations are installed across the province, the party will have fundamentally changed the format of the vote, a change that could give Kenney the advantage, he said. 

"If they make it easier, then you could see existing members flocking to those polls, suddenly joining in, and becoming much more active in the process," Carter said.  "By simply expanding the number of polling stations, it could change the outcome." 

Jean has called on the party to commit to keeping the vote in Red Deer and has urged the UCP to bring in an outside auditor to handle the surge in party registrants.

Carter said the results should be audited by a chartered accountant. But if Kenney wins, his opponents will continue to question the process no matter how carefully it has been managed, he said.

"[Jean] has a horse in play ... it's to his benefit to question the process, in case he loses."

The high numbers don't bode well for Kenney, especially if voting remains restricted to the Red Deer area, Carter said. 

"I think it's going to be really hard for him to organize so, right now, I'm not betting on his chances."

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said high registration numbers may provide Kenney's camp a much-needed loophole.

The vote could be delayed due to capacity concerns with the venue, buying Kenney time to curry favour within the party, Bratt said.

Kenney could also use the high registration numbers as justification for calling a snap election, Bratt said. 

I was of the view that Kenney would survive the leadership review. I am no longer of that view.- Duane Bratt

"I think he's still got some tools at his disposal that he may use, but those would all be a sign of desperation and a sign that he knows he is losing," Bratt said.

Anger against Kenney has unified party membership in a way the premier never has, Bratt said.

"I was of the view that Kenney would survive the leadership review. I am no longer of that view," he said.

Document details rules for vote

Rules and procedures for the April 9 meeting were approved by the UCP board on Jan. 25.

The ballot question is: "Do you approve of the current leader?" 

The plan calls for ballots to be cast inside designated voting rooms at the hotel starting at noon. Polls would close at 6 p.m. Results would be announced to the members present before the meeting ends.

The vote would  be supervised by a chief returning officer, with constituency association presidents acting as scrutineers. The meeting committee would have the power to appoint an independent auditor to verify the results.

Leadership contest starts if Kenney loses

If Kenney fails to capture a majority — 50 per cent plus one — a leadership contest would be automatically triggered.

The premier, facing a growing internal revolt from within his own party, now has one of his greatest political rivals in his own caucus.

After winning the byelection in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche last week, Jean has escalated his campaign to replace Kenney as UCP leader and premier.

While Jean has been buttonholing his supporters to register, documents obtained by CBC show ministerial staff were told to take unpaid leave to help work the phones for Kenney. 

"At this stage, it's all about who shows up," said Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams.

"It's going to come down to organization on the one hand and passion on the other. Is there enough anger and motivation among Jason Kenney's opponents to actually carry the vote?" 

Since returning to the legislature last week, Brian Jean has escalated his campaign to oust Kenney as party leader. (Terry Reith/CBC )

Jean and Kenney founded the UCP together in 2017 as a merger of the Wildrose Party and the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta.

Jean lost the leadership to Kenney that year in a vote tainted by accusations of secret deals, colluding candidates and voter fraud. An RCMP investigation continues. The spectre of those outstanding allegations could sully the April 9 leadership vote, Williams said.

Any logistical problems at the ballot box could call the validity of the vote into question and drive a bigger wedge into the party, she said.

Even a win at the ballot box would not be a victory for Kenney, she said.

"Even with a decisive victory, there will be some who question whether the process has been fair and open."

With files from Elise von Scheel, Stephanie Rousseau

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