In an email sent to party members, UCP president Cynthia Moore said the party’s board members wanted to ensure every single party member has an opportunity to vote in the leadership review. The party will open up the voting to anyone who has a current membership as of March 19 due to increased interest.
The board also decided to move the special general meeting online instead of in Red Deer, Alta. on April 9. According to the email, more than 15,000 people have registered to participate.
The party will eliminate registration fees for members, but details on how to receive a refund are unclear. Members also have the option to convert the registration fees into a donation by asking for a tax receipt.
A national auditing firm is being retained to oversee the mail-in vote and more details about the vote will be released in the coming days.
“This extraordinary interest in the democratic process shows the strength of our party. We thank you for being part of it,” Moore said.
Former Wildrose Party leader and recently-elected Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche UCP MLA Brian Jean was upset by the change in voting mechanics and took to social media to share his thoughts.
“The UCP board’s decision to do this leadership review vote completely outside of the party’s rules is a travesty,” Jean said.
He said the party’s rules require a leadership vote happen at an annual or special general meeting, rules that can’t be changed by the board.
“This rule exists to make sure that no one votes who is not actually present at the meeting. It is an anti-cheating mechanism that prevents fraudulent votes from being cast.”
Jean said the board’s decision shows disregard for party rules and the “rights” of UCP members to a “fair and honest” process.
“Make no mistake, a rushed mail-in ballot is a formula for fraud and cheating,” he said. “The UCP cannot survive another tainted vote.”
Jean also alleged his campaign team was told by MLAs and organizers that “thousands of memberships were bought by the Kenney camp for people, most of whom don’t actually know they are members,” and he would pursue the matter with Elections Alberta.
“In the meantime, we will be in discussions with our lawyers over what legal options party members may have to use either the party’s dispute process or the courts to make the UCP follow the law and its own rules,” Jean concluded, adding he would have more to say on Thursday.
Distrust, disappointment, speculation
Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said changing the rules after the membership cutoff date will exclude people who were interested in voting but couldn’t travel to Red Deer or pay the registration fee.
It also changes the strategies of those campaigning for Kenney and against him, she said.
“Because the original rules were so specific and demanded that people be in Red Deer to cast a ballot in person, it certainly would have shaped the strategies of both the pro-Kenney and anti-Kenney campaigns,” Young said.
“This rule change will be very frustrating for the organizers who have worked on an understanding of what was going to actually happen.”
Young also said the rule change may hurt the UCP, but did not say whether or not this move will benefit Kenney.
“The way that the party set the contest up was a recipe for disaster and they didn’t seem to have any backup plan in case the numbers were going to be greater than what they had planned for,” she said.
“We can speculate that the premier’s operation has signed up a lot of people who maybe hadn’t been party members before or who might be more likely to cast a mail-in ballot… But we don’t know that. There’s so much we don’t know.”
Samantha Steinke is the president of the Central Peace-Notley UCP constituency association. She is one of 33 association presidents who penned a letter earlier this week to the UCP board outlining options to keep the vote in Red Deer.
“I can tell you that people are not happy,” Steinke said. “I’ve personally already had people call me this morning asking, ‘Is the party going to refund me for my non-refundable hotel room? Are they going to refund me for the bus that we booked and now cannot get out of?’ These are all serious concerns that people in our area have.”
She also voiced concerns with the mail-in vote decision.
“Are we really relying on people’s ballots getting there on time? Or not getting lost in the mail? It’s disheartening to think that three quarters of the way through the process we’ve now decided to pull the rug out from under people and change the rules.
“It definitely leaves a lot to be desired and I think that people are going to have questions and they’re going to have concerns.”
Steinke admits she wasn’t surprised by the decision to change the rules of the process, but said it’s hurtful and unfortunate.
“There’s definitely reasons why it was done,” she said. “You don’t just change it on a whim. There are lots of rumours going around and lots of speculation.
“It’s sad to see that we have come to this situation where there is absolutely zero trust left in the leader or in the process and I don’t know if we will be able to gain that back. But one thing I do know is we won’t get it back with Jason Kenney as the leader.”
Political scientist Duane Bratt said there was no doubt the explosion of interest in Kenney’s leadership raised logistical problems for a vote that was set for six hours at a conference centre.
But Bratt said a voting change this late raises many questions and will fuel existing mistrust by Kenney opponents already at odds with party officials over reports of constituency boards being stacked and some nomination challengers vetoed.
“You can strip away all that you want, but ultimately there’s no trust in this party,” said Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“This whole fiasco over rules and how they’re going to structure the vote is just an illustration of that.
“Grassroots members of the party do not trust the party executive and the premier.”
Harrison Fleming, spokesperson for Jason Kenney’s leadership review campaign, said the team is pleased that it will be easier for members to vote.
“With more than 15,000 members currently registered to attend the SGM at a venue that can only hold 2,000 — and more than two weeks to go before the vote — something had to be done to accommodate the growing demand for members to have their say. The party was at risk of disenfranchising thousands of UCP members.
“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. 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.
“We expect the mail-in voting process to adhere to the highest possible standards of fairness, and look forward to UCP members having their say in a far more open and accessible process,” Fleming told Global News in an email.
–With files from Tom Vernon, Caley Gibson and Adam Toy, Global News, and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press