Albertans will soon know who their next premier is.Probably.It will be Rachel Notley, the popular leader of the less popular NDP, or it will be Jason Kenney, the controversial figure whose United Conservative Party showed a commanding lead in almost every poll.Just before polls closed at 8 p.m. MT on Tuesday, a steady stream of UCP diehards filed into the Big Four Roadhouse on the Calgary Stampede Grounds, buying drinks and taking selfies in front of a giant screen with “Alberta Strong & Free” projected onto it.The night’s first burst of excitement came when the country band, Five of Diamonds, ripped through a cover of the Tragically Hip’s Blow at High Dough. The first results, showing a strong lead in Drayton Valley – Devon for UCP candidate Mark Smith, who was swept up in a mid–campaign scandal about 2013 comments about homosexuality and abortion, attracted a massive cheer.At the NDP party at the Edmonton Convention Centre, around 75 people were stood around casually chatting in the crowd as music played. A Rachel Notley Fighting For You logo was emblazoned on an orange screen above the stage, which was flanked by the NDP’s two tour vans.Adding to the potential election night drama are a record-setting 696,000 advance votes, which threaten to leave the results hanging, undecided, for hours if not days. For the first time, Alberta allowed advance votes to be cast at any voting booth, not just in a voter’s polling district. With 223,000 “vote-anywhere” ballots cast, Alberta has to safely transport and count them for the correct riding — a process that won’t start until Wednesday, which could delay results in ridings with tight races.UCP organizers, however, expressed confidence they’d have a clear result by the end of the evening.Tuesday marked the end of a rollicking 28-day campaign that veered frequently into personal attacks. Kenney, the former Conservative cabinet minister who left his seat in Ottawa to unite the province’s fractured conservative movement, was beset by controversy through much of the campaign. The NDP zeroed in on his past, unearthing and releasing Kenney’s political record and retrograde comments on LGBTQ rights.Kenney insisted it was simply a “fear and smear” campaign, meant to distract from the NDP’s economic record. The economy has long been top of mind in the province. Since 2016, when the bottom fell out of the international oil market, Alberta has been in a prolonged recession; recovery, economists say, has stalled coming into 2019, with unemployment hovering around seven per cent. Kenney has argued that Notley’s government has made a bad situation worse with higher taxes, more regulations and increases in minimum wage. Notley, in turn, has said Kenney’s plan to freeze spending and pursue more private healthcare options would have a profound effect on students and patients.“It was horrible,” said Dan Rose, a voter in Edmonton, told the Edmonton Journal. “I can’t think of a worse, more negative, more caustic campaign in my time. It was just awful.”With UCP ahead in the polls, the NDP has stressed that polls have been historically inaccurate in Alberta. The polls were indeed wrong in 2015, when Notley’s NDP surged to a majority — forming the province’s first NDP government — in one of the most unprecedented election results in Canadian political history.That victory was made possible, perhaps, by vote splitting among the province’s conservatives, who were divided between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party. But Kenney’s union of the two under the UCP has all but eliminated the chance of that happening again.
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley and her son Ethan vote in the provincial election in Edmonton on Tuesday.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
And while the new party polls better than the NDP, Kenney personally hasn’t polled as well as the incumbent premier.“It’s a bit of an anomaly,” Lori Williams, a policy studies professor at Mont Royal University, said on Tuesday. “They think very highly of Rachel Notley.”A Global/Ipsos poll on Monday, however, found that Kenney was closing the gap. On the question of who would make a better premier, Notley held a “statistically insignificant” two-point lead over Kenney (37 per cent versus 35 per cent).On Tuesday, Elections Alberta scrambled to send replacement staff to run a polling station in a fly-in northern First Nation community. Drew Westwater, Alberta’s deputy chief electoral officer, said Elections Alberta chartered a plane to bring extra personnel to Fox Lake, Alta., after the original team assigned to run the polling station quit. Westwater said he wasn’t certain why they quit.“It’s a first,” he said. “I’ve been running elections since 1977 — I’ve never come across this before.”Westwater said Elections Alberta hired and trained four different teams since the election was called this year. “All of them have quit on us,” he said.On Tuesday evening, Westwater hadn’t heard from the staff he sent to Fox Lake, since they do not have telephone service. He expected them to keep the polling station open later than scheduled.“We’re staying as late as we can — before dark, when the plane has to leave.”Notley began her Tuesday by voting at the Old Timers Cabin, in her riding of Edmonton-Strathcona, with her family and three-legged dog Tucker.“Can’t change my mind now,” Notley told reporters at the ballot box.Kenney’s campaign was making the north-south run down Alberta’s Queen Elizabeth II corridor; he stopped at the Tim Hortons in Red Deer, Alta., about halfway between Edmonton and Calgary, then another stop in the Calgary-Elbow riding, where the Alberta party candidate, Greg Clark — a former party leader — is hoping to retain a seat.After the final campaign stop at Calgary-Elbow, Kenney retired to the Fairmont Palliser Hotel in downtown Calgary to have dinner and spend the evening with family members. UCP members gathered at the Stampede Grounds in Calgary to watch results and the party expected some VIPs, like former Conservative Party interim leader Rona Ambrose and Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, to be in attendance. Kenney is expected to head to the venue once results start rolling in after polls close at 8 p.m. MT.Notley’s future will be one immediate question should the NDP be defeated. She told the Post she would be staying on as a member of the legislature, regardless; it’s not yet known if she’ll stay on as party leader, even if there is no obvious successor.— with files from The Canadian Press, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: tylerrdawson• Email: email@example.com | Twitter: stuartxthomson