Edmonton

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's rival slams shift to mail-in ballot for leadership review

Premier Jason Kenney's most outspoken political rival says changing the UCP leadership review to a mail-in ballot from an in-person event is a travesty that will leave the vote vulnerable to cheating.

'Make no mistake, a rushed mail-in ballot is a formula for fraud and cheating,' Brian Jean says

With thousands registered to vote on Premier Jason Kenney's fate, the United Conservative Party is moving the vote to a mail-in ballot. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Jason Kenney's most outspoken political rival is accusing Kenney's campaign team of bending the rules, as the fight over the premier's political future reaches the final stretch. 

On Wednesday, the United Conservative Party (UCP) announced that its board had voted to change the format of the April 9 leadership review, after the number of registered voters surged far beyond expectations.

The announcement triggered accusations of cheating, faulty memberships and new questions about the validity of moving to a mail-in ballot two weeks in advance of the vote.

While Kenney applauded the move, newly-elected MLA Brian Jean said changing the UCP leadership review from in-person event to a mail-in ballot is a "formula for fraud and cheating."

In a statement Wednesday, Jean said Kenney's campaign team is already taking liberties on the campaign trail. Kenney's campaign team has denied any allegations of wrongdoing. 

The UCP cannot survive another tainted vote."- Brian Jean

"Make no mistake, a rushed mail-in ballot is a formula for fraud and cheating," Jean said in the statement. "The UCP cannot survive another tainted vote."

With more than 15,000 party members registered to vote on Kenney's fate as leader next month, Alberta's United Conservative Party board said it was forced to change the format of the April 9 leadership review.

"The UCP board's decision to do this leadership review vote completely outside of the party's rules is a travesty," Jean said. 

"UCP rules require that leadership review votes must happen at annual general meetings or special general meetings. This is not a rule that the party board can change. 

"This rule exists to make sure that no one votes who is not actually present at the meeting. It is an anti-cheating mechanism." 

'Rules don't matter'

Jean said he will be calling on Elections Alberta to investigate reports that thousands of memberships were bought by Kenney's team for people, "most of whom don't actually know they are members."

Jean said his campaign team was also informed that Kenney's supporters were signing up thousands of voters in Edmonton and Calgary who never paid for memberships.

"That is unethical. But it is also a violation of Alberta law," Jean said. 

Candidates running to be the new leader of the UCP will have to pay between $75,000 and $100,000 just to see their name on the ballot (Terry Reith/CBC )

Jean said he is consulting his lawyers on the mail-in ballot and said he will be calling on the vote auditor to review every membership added in the last month to confirm they are valid. 

The party had originally planned for a one-day event in Red Deer of around 3,000 people but the hotly contested leadership review now has the party struggling to prepare for what is expected to be one of the largest political events in Alberta history.

Members worried about protests

In a statement to CBC News Wednesday, Kenney's campaign team celebrated the change as a necessary move to ease capacity issues at the venue, including security concerns. 

"We have also heard directly from some members who worried about safety at such a large, over-capacity in-person event likely to attract protests," reads the statement from Harrison Fleming, a spokesperson for Kenney's leadership review campaign.

"It's important that all members have a safe and secure way to vote, free from potential harassment and intimidation, and a mail-in ballot provides that opportunity.

Fleming said Jean's accusations surrounding faulty memberships are unfounded. Jean's concerns over the changes to the vote neglect the MLA's own political history, Fleming said.

"Brian Jean was elected as leader of the Wildrose party through a rushed telephone ballot. It was originally supposed to include mail-in ballots, but was changed at the last minute."

Kenney would welcome an audit of new members and the Premier's team expects the mail-in vote will be fair and accurate, Fleming said. 

"We would welcome any audit of new members, including those signed up by Brian Jean and the campaign he's involved with, which is on the record offering 'financial support' to bring people to Red Deer," Fleming said.

"While Mr. Jean might want to spend his time suing the UCP to prevent members from voting, we are encouraged by the widespread interest from UCP members to remain engaged and active in this big-tent conservative movement." 

 UCP membership has more than doubled in advance of the leadership vote and and more than 15,000 people have registered to participate, party president Cynthia Moore said in an emailed statement Tuesday. 

A national auditing firm will be hired to oversee the ballot, Moore said.

Because of the "intense interest," the board has decided to open up the voting to all those that had a current membership as of the March 19 cutoff, Moore said. 

The special general meeting, scheduled for April 9 in Red Deer, will be also moved online so that every member can participate, Moore said Wednesday. The party will later instruct registrants on obtaining a refund or a tax receipt for registration fees.

Registrants surge beyond expectations

The vote was originally scheduled as a one-day event at a Red Deer hotel but when registration numbers surged beyond expectations, the Cambridge Hotel and Conference Centre could no longer accommodate the event. 

Alberta's governing United Conservative Party was expecting up to 20,000 of its members to attend. As of Sunday, more than 13,718 members had already registered for the vote. 

The cutoff to sign up new party members for the vote was last Saturday at midnight and Kenney's supporters — and his opponents — were campaigning hard to get new members registered in time.

If Kenney fails to capture a majority — 50 per cent plus one — a leadership contest would be automatically triggered. Registrants will vote on the question: "Do you approve of the current leader?"

Kenney is facing increasing political turmoil and growing discontent from within the ranks of his own party.

His approval ratings have suffered during the pandemic as disgruntled MLAs openly criticized his handling of COVID-19.

Last week, the campaign to oust Kenney intensified when Jean returned to legislature after winning the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection. 

Jean founded the UCP  in partnership with Kenney in 2017 but their relationship soured after he lost to Kenney in a race tainted by allegations of voter fraud and Jean left politics behind.

Last November, Jean announced that he would come out of political retirement as a means to oust Kenney from the leadership seat. 

Jean said the party can only be unified and win the next election, if Kenney is removed.

Kenney has characterized the vote as a potential takeover of his party by extremists, including those angry over health restrictions his government brought in during the pandemic.

He has said he will be satisfied to continue as leader as long as he receives 50 per cent of the vote plus one next month. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. She loves helping people tell their stories on issues ranging from health care to the courts. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Wallis has a bachelor of journalism (honours) from the University of King's College in Halifax, N.S. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Michelle Bellefontaine

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