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Kenney's UCP vote attracts logistics and legitimacy questions as 10K now registered

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With three weeks to go until Alberta Premier Jason Kenney learns his fate in a leadership vote, the camp of his main rival has confirmed that more than 10,000 people are now signed up to cast a ballot.

Kenney's UCP leadership campaign and that of Brian Jean entered the weekend trying to push those numbers even higher amongst their respective supporters, raising questions about how the party and the host city will handle an event that is now described as "going viral."

The voting is scheduled to happen from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. on April 9 at the Cambridge Hotel in Red Deer. The hotel's website said it can "easily accommodate up to 2,000 attendees."

"You're going to be held up in traffic before you get the chance to be held up at the balloting," predicted campaign strategist Stephen Carter.

"There's supposed to be a speech, there's supposed to be election planning, so it's not just setting up this voting system."

Carter worked on campaigns for former premier Alison Redford, former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and current Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek.

He said he's never seen a leadership review this big before. And with as many as 15,000 people expected, he doesn't think either campaign can be confident in the outcome.

"I think that both Brian Jean and Jason Kenney are tracking a minority of the number of people who are going up and the rest is viral. And we're all just gonna sit at the edge of seats waiting for Jason Kenney to ultimately lose," he predicted with a smile.

Jean continued to urge people to sign up by Saturday at midnight. People must be United Conservative Party members by then in order to vote.

CTV News Edmonton obtained emails that detail an "urgent" call for Kenney supporters to take Friday off of work to volunteer for a final push to save the premier's job.

A UCP spokesperson said Friday that the number of registrants and logistical details for Red Deer will be released sometime after Saturday.

"Ballots are being counted by volunteer party members, and the process is being overseen by our constituency association presidents who are acting as scrutineers," Dave Prisco wrote in an email.

Carter said the party should look at setting up remote screens and voting stations in other Red Deer hotel ballrooms.

Friday evening, Jean called for an auditor to be appointed over "fairness concerns."

"Making substantial changes now would be unacceptable," he wrote in a news release. He also called for assurances that the voting rules and location won't be changed.

SO WHAT DO THE NUMBERS SUGGEST?

An Alberta political scientist said big interest in leadership reviews usually signals a desire for change.

"The fact that there have been 10,000 people that have signed up and indicated that they want to vote in this really does suggest that there is a pretty strong move to oust the premier," said Lisa Young from the University of Calgary.

"Had the UCP known that there was going to be this level of interest, they would have planned the vote differently. Perhaps with satellite voting stations in other parts of the province," she said.

Young noted that the RCMP is still investigating the last leadership battle between Jean and Kenney.

The party could have done an online vote to make logistics easier but decided not to, Young said, adding that public trust is an issue for the party because of the 2017 leadership vote, which also resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

"All of this is going to throw the legitimacy of the outcome into question."

"I do suspect that there's been a political calculation made, having this in one place, and making it relatively difficult to get to…I guess the question is, does the party really want all of these people to be able to vote?" she wondered.

A WIN FOR RED DEER

Despite the results of the vote, a sure winner will be local businesses in Red Deer, said the leader of the Alberta Hotel and Lodging Association.

"It's a real boost for the hospitality sector. It could be a challenge to get a room, so book early," said Dave Kaiser, who added that traffic and staffing in hotels and restaurants will be issues for a day or two.

Still, he said Red Deer could use the business after two pandemic years.

The city has hosted large events like World Junior Hockey Championship games before, he noted, and the hotel, previously called the Capri, has been the scene of big political conventions since the 1960s.

"I've been to the Cambridge for events before, actually those political-type conventions…in some cases they've even had tents set up outside to feed everyone," Kaiser said.

"They know in advance of what's coming, so I suspect they'll be well prepared."

But as Carter and Young both pointed out, what will happen at the ballot box is less certain.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson

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