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Advance polls reveal unexpected record turnout

Andre Leveille leaves an advanced polling station after casting his vote in Montreal Friday, April 22, 2011. Canadians will vote in a federal election on May 2, 2011.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The federal election campaign that began as a sleepy affair now threatens to transform the Canadian political landscape, with leading parties facing sharp reversals and record turnout at advance polls.

Elections Canada on Tuesday reported a 35-per-cent jump in the number of Canadians that took part in early voting last weekend, with two days having the biggest advance turnout ever.

Connecting through traditional means and social media, Canadians appear to be seized by the dramatic shift in momentum that has vaulted Jack Layton's New Democrats well above their also-ran status.

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Recent polls have undermined the carefully calculated scenarios of national campaign managers, bringing Canadian politics into uncharted territory.

A poll released on Tuesday evening by Angus Reid puts Stephen Harper's Conservatives at 35 per cent - below their 2008 election result of 37.6 per cent - and well below what's needed for a majority government.

That same poll has the NDP at 30 per cent, not only confirming recent polls that put the left-of-centre party in second place, but putting it several lengths in front of Michael Ignatieff's Liberals at 22 per cent.

The jump in advance polling on the weekend was fuelled in part by "vote mobs" on college and university campuses, but also by fact that it was held on the long holiday weekend, allowing working Canadians to vote at their leisure.

The turnout provides some hope that the prolonged slump in Canadian participation in federal elections may reverse, said former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley.

"People may be beginning to understand that there is a lot at stake," said Mr. Kingsley, who is active in the group Apathy is Boring.

He noted, however, that the number of Canadians voting at advance polls has been rising steadily and it is too early to tell whether turnout will be up on Monday.

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The 2008 election had a record low turnout, with participation dipping below 60 per cent for the first time. And many political scientists warned of continued erosion this year.

Voting at advance polls was 35-per-cent higher than Elections Canada recorded for the 2008 election, with 2,056,001 voters.

The biggest percentage increases occurred in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, at 75 and 68 per cent respectively, while the number of voters at advance polls in Ontario was up 37 per cent.

"There was a higher-than-expected turnout this past weekend at the advance polls," chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand stated in a release late Tuesday.

Mr. Harper has urged Canadians to give him a majority government, in part to prevent the opposition parties from taking power in a coalition. Mr. Harper warned, and Mr. Ignatieff confirmed, that the opposition parties could combine to bring down the Conservatives when Parliament reconvenes. But that assumed the Liberals would be the official opposition: Mr. Ignatieff would become prime minister with the support of the NDP and the Bloc, although the Liberal Leader ruled out a formal coalition.

The latest polls, however, suggest Mr. Layton could be the one seeking to form a government.

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With public opinion volatile and the election five days away, support could still shift.

Expect Mr. Harper to warn of the perils to the Canadian economy if Mr. Layton becomes prime minister, urging voters to flock to the Conservative banner to prevent such a possibility.

Mr. Ignatieff is imploring Canadians to return to the political centre, rather than allowing federal politics to become a polarizing contest between left and right.

Mr. Duceppe is warning Quebec nationalists not to abandon the only party in Ottawa that speaks solely for Quebec.

The pitch of the campaign can only rise as Canadians contemplate tectonic shifts in the federal political ground.

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Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

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