UCP board moves Kenney’s leadership review to mail-in nerd, virtual

“This extraordinary interest in the democratic process shows the strength of our Party. We thank you for being part of it”

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UCP executives have radically changed the game plan to deal with what would have been a crush of attendees, weeks before a vote deciding the fate of Premier Jason Kenney.

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In a letter to party members released Wednesday, president Cynthia Moore said the board decided to move to a mail-in ballot, and switch the event to a virtual one instead of meeting in Red Deer on April 9.

The party has eliminated the registration fee, and said more information about how to get a refund or a tax receipt will be provided “shortly.”

“We should celebrate that since the special general meeting was announced, our UCP membership has more than doubled and more than 15,000 people have registered to participate,” Moore said.

A national auditing firm is being retained to oversee the mail-in vote.

Within hours of the changes being made public, complaints were already being heard.

Brian Jean, who recently won the UCP seat in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche on a platform to replace Kenney, called the changes a “travesty.”

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“UCP rules require that leadership review votes must happen at either annual general meetings or special general meetings. This is not a rule that the party board can change,” Jean said in a statement.

“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.”

He called a rushed mail-in ballot “a formula for fraud and cheating,” and said his team will be talking with lawyers to go over legal options and calling on the vote auditor to review every membership added to the list in the last month to confirm they were bought legally.

For its part, the team running Kenney’s leadership review campaign issued a statement saying they were pleased that voting was being made easier, adding that something had to be done to accommodate demand.

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“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,” the statement says.

“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.”

Voting will only be open to those who have a current membership as of March 19.

Speaking to reporters prior to question period in the legislature Wednesday, Independent MLAs Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes said the changes further erode trust in the party.

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“A lot of rural Albertans who want to be involved in the process but couldn’t get to Red Deer because of farming or calving, decided not to participate,” Barnes said.

“Now they can’t.”

Joel Mullan, a former UCP board member who last year called for Kenney to resign, told Postmedia he believes the board is out of touch with grassroots members and is trying to give every advantage to Kenney.

“It speaks volumes that these changes were made after the close of membership sales. They smell like panic,” he said, adding that the board chose a more difficult-to-scrutinize method of voting as opposed to opening up more in-person sites in multiple municipalities.

Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt told Postmedia said he expects the rule change will invite lawsuits, and some party members are bound to be skeptical of the validity of mail-in ballots.

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“They had to make changes because of the problems of voting and venue with this amount of people. The question is: why are they choosing these options?” said Bratt, noting the path they chose is certain to raise questions because the grassroots of the party don’t trust Kenney or the board.

RCMP are still investigating a complaint of voting irregularities in the 2017 UCP leadership race in which Jean lost to Kenney.

Thousands of voters descending on Red Deer would have meant significant business for the city’s hotels and restaurants.

Scott Robinson, CEO of the Red Deer Chamber of Commerce, said he is disappointed that the event won’t be happening in the city but that he understands the decision.

“We always want to have events that have significant economic benefit to our community. Red Deer is a great place, obviously being central for these types of things, and we were looking forward to having everybody join us here in Red Deer,” he said.

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The changes come after 33 riding presidents called for all voting to still be held at the Cambridge on April 9 in a letter sent to Moore on Tuesday.

The letter noted that the executive decided on Red Deer as the location, telling local ridings that one site would help secure the integrity of the vote.

“To change the location after the membership deadline to vote may even be perceived as underhanded,” the letter said, proposing to double voting time to 12 hours to get all potential 20,000 votes cast in one location.

— With files from Anna Junker

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reportrix

ajoannou@postmedia.com

twitter.com/ashleyjoannou

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