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How Alberta’s UCP leadership race works

Click to play video: 'Final days of the UCP leadership race'
Final days of the UCP leadership race
WATCH ABOVE: Seven people are vying to be the next leader of the United Conservative Party and Alberta premier and in a few days, Albertans will learn who the winner is. Tom Vernon reports – Oct 3, 2022

Come Thursday, Alberta will have a new premier-designate.

The United Conservative Party leadership vote comes as current Premier Jason Kenney announced in May his intention to resign after receiving 51 per cent support in a party leadership review.

The interesting part about this leadership vote is the fact that the UCP has a majority government in Alberta, which in turn means the new leader will automatically become premier-designate. (More on that below.)

To break down how the voting process works, potential outcomes and overall knowledge of what this means for Albertans, Global News reached out to Dr. Trevor Harrison, a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge.

For starters: who’s running

Seven candidates put their names forward for the UCP leadership.

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Candidates include former Wildrose leaders Brian Jean and Danielle Smith, as well as Leela Aheer, Rajan Sawhney, Rebecca Schulz, Todd Loewen and Travis Toews.

According to the UCP website, in order to enter the race, the applicant had to submit a comprehensive questionnaire that would be reviewed by the leadership election committee, pay a $150,000 entrance fee to cover the cost of organizing the election, along with providing $25,000 which is refundable for a “compliance deposit.”

Click to play video: 'Outgoing Alberta Premier Kenney stays busy on final days'
Outgoing Alberta Premier Kenney stays busy on final days

Applicants also had to obtain at least 1,000 signatures of UCP members, with a minimum of 200 from each of the party’s five provincial regions.

To note, four of the candidates were from within Kenney’s cabinet: Aheer, Schulz, Sawhney and Toews. Meanwhile, Loewen was part of Kenney’s caucus last year, but was given the boot after scrutinizing Kenney as premier.

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Read more: Alberta UCP leadership race likely doing ‘serious damage’ to party’s brand: pollster

The other two, Jean and Smith are no strangers to the political landscape in Alberta as they were both leaders of the Wildrose Party which merged in 2017 with the Progressive Conservatives to form the UCP.

Can all Albertans vote?

The short answer is no. In order to vote during the UCP leadership race, one must pay for a party membership that would set a person back $10. However, that ship has sailed as of Aug. 12.

Harrison calls it a bit of a wildcard with this vote as the current membership — 123,915 people — represents “a somewhat select group of people” who may not convey the wants and needs of the majority of Albertans.

“It becomes a really interesting thing that way too,” he said. “As the leader, do they have support outside of the party itself? That’s going to be an interesting question for the party going forward.”

Click to play video: 'Final in-person vote Thursday for UCP members to pick Alberta premier'
Final in-person vote Thursday for UCP members to pick Alberta premier

When looking at where the majority of UCP supporters live, Harrison said a large portion – if not a good majority – live in rural Alberta, which he said is not “very representative of what is a very urbanized province.”

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Harrison added one of the main questions for the party going forward is: “Is the party going to be representative going into a general election of the electorate as a whole?”

Read more: Alberta UCP leadership candidate Danielle Smith says if elected, she won’t call early election

With that in mind, the advice Harrison gave to those feeling wary of what’s about to happen is to mark down May 2023, when the next provincial election is slated.

How is the vote counted?

A preferential vote will take place on Thursday, though if a voting member couldn’t make it to one of the five polling stations across the province, they would have to have had their mail-in ballot submitted to the auditor on or before 5 p.m. Monday.

Members are asked to rank who they want as leader in order of first to the seventh choice, though as Harrison explains, they don’t have to fill out all seven choices.

“They could say they only want to rank the first three,” Harrison said.

“But the way it’ll work is, after the first round (of counting ballots) if nobody has 50 per cent plus one, then the bottom seventh person on everybody’s (list) drops off. But that person’s second choice then is thrown into the mix and they keep doing that and until some candidate gets 50 per cent plus one.”

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He added although the new leader may not have been a voting member’s first, second or third choice, enough people had to have ranked the new leader high enough in order for them to be chosen.

Many political party votes have gone the route of a preferential ballot in order to be more transparent, according to Harrison.

“At the end of the day, (the party) ends up with someone who has at least a resounding amount of support, which with the old systems might not have necessarily been the case.”

When will Alberta know the results?

Pollster and political commentator Janet Brown outlined the timeline of events for the UCP leadership vote on Thursday.

“The deadline for getting a membership passed almost two months ago, on Aug. 12, so since Aug. 12, ballots have been sent out, they’ve been coming in and anyone who intended to mail their ballot, it has to be in by now.”

The only remaining voting option UCP members have now is to go to one of the five stations on Thursday before noon.

“Then at noon the final ballots will be processed and then the UCP will spent the afternoon tabulating the numbers… They run all the ballots through their counting machines and they count the first place choices, and they’ll release those results at 6 p.m.

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“If nobody has a majority based on the first choices, then the bottom candidate drops off and they recount, they have a second ballot,” Brown explained.

She said the UCP president has told her the ballot results are expected to come in in 10-15-minute intervals.

“It could be all over with very quickly, it could be over at 6 p.m. or it could be over with closer to 7 or 7:30 p.m., but I’ve been told it won’t go on late into the evening.”

Click to play video: 'UCP leadership race likely doing ‘serious damage’ to party’s brand: pollster'
UCP leadership race likely doing ‘serious damage’ to party’s brand: pollster

Alberta's next chosen premier-designate

After the Thursday vote results are in, the winner becomes premier-designate.

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However, Harrison was quick to point out that due to the leadership-driven system, the party going forward must now also have enough people to back them when voting for certain measures in the legislature.

One of the more contentious issues throughout the leadership race is the proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act, which Danielle Smith plans to enact. Harrison said if the act were to be brought forward in the legislature, she would need to receive a plurality of support to which she’s unlikely to get from the opposition NDP. This could then become a “really interesting scenario,” Harrison said.

Read more: UCP candidates denounce Danielle Smith’s proposed sovereignty act as ‘constitutional fairytale’

Whoever the next leader is will have a bit of juggling to do with what they choose to put forward. Harrison explained one can’t pivot too far from what they’ve promised during their campaign as it could result in party backlash, which hurts not only the confidence of the leader but of the party as a whole.

“It’s a delicate game,” Harrison said, adding former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s quote of: “You dance with the one that brung ya.”

Difficult to lead outside of the legislature

A poll conducted by Leger last month found Jean would edge out the others as the candidate best able to beat Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley in the next general election, followed by Smith and then Toews.

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Harrison said you have to take those type of polls with a grain of salt. But he said it will be interesting if Smith wins, as she’s the only one out of the seven candidates that does not currently hold a seat in the legislature.

This would mean Smith would have to run in a byelection. Currently, the only open seat is Doug Schweitzer’s former riding of Calgary-Elbow. Schweitzer was the former minister of jobs, economy and innovation, but announced in August he was resigning.

“It’s difficult to lead from outside the legislature,” Harrison explained.

“If you’re a leader, though, and you’re going to run in the byelection, you sure as hell want to make sure you win it because it’s kind of embarrassing to lose. (But) is that a safe seat to actually run in? Some people have said maybe that’s not the safest seat for Smith.”

This would mean someone else within the party would have to “fall on their sword,” Harrison said, to then step down so Smith could win what would be a “safe” election for the Conservative party.

However, should Smith not win, it would be a simple transition for the other six.

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