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Questions linger as Alberta heads to the polls

Voters turn up at a polling station in High River, Alberta April 23, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

High voter turnout and narrow races are expected as Albertans head to the polls Monday, with a 41-year Progressive Conservative dynasty in the balance.

The election has been a tumultuous four-week ride, one that saw Wildrose burst out of the gate, take a lead on the PCs, and then see its poll numbers tumble back down amid questions about two controversial candidates and leader Danielle Smith's view on climate change.

Heading into Monday evening, though, pollsters agree Wildrose maintains a lead and is on pace for a majority or minority government. Sources in both the PC and Wildrose camps say each party believes it will win a full majority.

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Several questions loom over the outcome.

The rural split

Wildrose is presumed to win most rural ridings. Ms. Smith consistently speaks to packed audiences in small towns, and a series of PC controversies - a committee that didn't meet but paid its members, new power lines, a land-use law, deficits - play particularly poorly among rural voters, who make up roughly a third of the electorate. Wildrose is, however, strongest in the south, and the PCs are hoping for a split by holding the line halfway through the province, as Wildrose's numbers sag in rural northern Alberta. If the PCs are successful, they could eat away at much of the Wildrose base; if they aren't, Wildrose will all but clinch its majority.

The Calgary question

The city has 25 seats, with half a dozen or more in nearby bedroom communities - and all but a handful are two-horse races between the PCs and Wildrose, one of which will form the government. If Calgary sways overwhelmingly from one to the other, it could decide the election. Calgary has traditionally been a Tory bastion, home to Ms. Redford and former premiers Ralph Klein and Peter Lougheed. But polls have shown Wildrose opening up a lead in the province's biggest city.

Voter Turnout

After dipping to a historic low of 40.6 per cent in 2008, voter turnout is expected to soar in Monday's vote - lineups were long early Monday in many ridings. Who benefits from this is unclear - high voter turnout is typically bad for an incumbent, but Wildrose is the presumed victor. Both parties have hoped for a higher turnout, but it may help Wildrose more in rural ridings and the PCs more in cities, particularly Edmonton, where many ridings are four-way races but where recent polls show the PCs have a lead. The record for voter turnout is 81 per cent, set in 1935.

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The undecideds

A recent poll showed roughly one-in-five Albertans remained undecided about their pick - an exceptionally high number this late in a race. As their pencil hovers over a ballot, undecided voters will mostly face a choice between extending a venerable PC dynasty or turning to a new party, despite its recent gaffes. Polls have shown the PCs with a slight edge over Wildrose among undecided voters.

The leaders

The leader with the safest seat, paradoxically, is considered to be New Democrat Brian Mason. Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, PC Leader Alison Redford and Ms. Smith have all faced questions during the campaign about whether they'll win their seat. A poor party showing combined with the loss of a seat could spell disaster for a party leader. Nonetheless, all are considered the favourites to win their seats.

The other parties

The Liberals and New Democrats aren't likely to take more than a dozen seats combined, but that could be the difference between a majority or minority for the PCs or Wildrose. However, a strong showing by the Liberals and New Democrats poses a bigger problem to the PCs - a Liberal or NDP surge eats up seats in centrist Edmonton, a city the Tories say they need to do well in if they're to form the government.

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What the guru says

Four years ago, pollster Janet Brown famously predicted Ed Stelmach's sweeping majority at a time when others thought he was in a close battle. This time around, she is predicting a Wildrose majority of between 50 and 60 of the province's 87 seats.

There are caveats, though, that make it tough to predict.

"There are probably at least half of the seats that are too close to call, and vote splits are much more of a serious concern," Ms. Brown says, though she's sticking to her projection. "The PCs getting more seats than the Wildrose - it's very hard to do the math on that. I've got six polls telling me the Wildrose ahead, so I'm just going to stick with what the polls say."

The polls close at 8 p.m. local time.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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