A contentious vote to determine the fate of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s leadership of the United Conservative Party has been changed from an in-person vote to mail-in ballots.

UCP president Cynthia Moore said Wednesday that the change was because of an unexpected crush of people signing up to vote April 9 in Red Deer on whether Kenney should remain party leader.

Moore said membership has ballooned to more than 15,000 registrants since the one-day, in-person vote was announced last December.

By comparison, about 2,800 showed up at the party's founding convention in 2018.

“We have responded to the thousands of you who have asked us to make it easy for our grassroots members to participate by eliminating the registration fee and the need for travel,” Moore said in a statement.

An auditing firm is being retained to oversee the vote.

Kenney’s leadership is being openly challenged by a segment of the party and if he doesn’t get more than 50 per cent support in the review, a leadership race must be called.

Kenney’s leadership review team, in a statement, applauded the changes.

“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."

Fractious United Conservative vote on #Alberta premier moves from in-person to mail-in. #ABPoli #UCP

The deadline for new members to sign up to vote passed on Saturday. Existing members still have time to register.

Reports began surfacing on the weekend that party executive members were considering whether to change the rules to broaden the voting base and make it easier to cast ballots. Kenney's critics said they feared the change came about because the premier didn’t have the numbers to win.

The party remains under RCMP investigation on accusations of identity fraud in the 2017 vote in which Kenney defeated Brian Jean to become leader.

Jean, the newest member of the UCP caucus after a recent byelection win, has been the highest profile opponent of Kenney.

He has been campaigning to get "no" votes out for the leadership review.

Jean, in a statement, called the change a travesty that violates party rules requiring in-person votes for leadership reviews to ensure fairness.

“Make no mistake, a rushed mail-in ballot is a formula for fraud and cheating. The UCP cannot survive another tainted vote,” wrote Jean.

Drew Barnes and Todd Loewen, two UCP members voted out of caucus last year for criticizing Kenney, also sharply criticized the decision. They said it was orchestrated by Kenney for his benefit.

“This is a party that has been led from the top down (by Kenney) since the beginning,” said Barnes. “Most Albertans, myself included, believe Kenney is involved in all the decisions.”

Multiple cabinet ministers and UCP backbenchers lauded the changes as they entered the legislature chamber Wednesday.

“At a very high level, it’s an inclusive way to make sure that every member has the opportunity to vote,” Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said there's 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 added, a voting change will fuel existing mistrust from Kenney opponents already at odds with party officials over reports of stacked constituency boards and vetoes of nomination challengers.

“You can strip away all that you want, but ultimately there’s no trust in this party,” said Bratt, who is 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.”

There has been open discontent by a segment of Kenney's caucus and party over his leadership and COVID-19 policies. Several polls have indicated that a Kenney-led UCP would lose to the Opposition NDP in next spring's election.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2022.

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