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Albertans go to the polls on May 29 following a hard-fought campaign between political rivals Danielle Smith and Rachel Notley.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Election day looms in Alberta after a heated contest between the UCP’s Danielle Smith and the NDP’s Rachel Notley where leadership became the dominant issue, rising above policy debates.

Tens of thousands of eligible voters are expected to cast their ballot on Monday, after a surge in advance voting that has put the province on course for a record voter turnout. A total 758,550 ballots were cast over five days, from May 23 to May 27, exceeding early voter counts in the past election.

In the past election, in 2019, 67.5 per cent of voters went to the polls – the highest in the province since 1971. There are nearly 2,785,000 eligible electors this year.

Live updates: Election day arrives in Alberta

Voting locations close at 8 p.m. on Monday, shutting the door on a 28-day campaign that pinned the United Conservative Party against the New Democratic Party. And while the UCP appears to have a slight advantage, pollsters and politicos say it’s either party’s election to win.

Particular attention will be paid to ridings in battleground Calgary and suburban communities skirting Edmonton as results begin to trickle in. The two areas are key for both the UCP and the NDP to form government.

The UCP is fighting for re-election after a tough four years in office, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and internal strife that led to the resignation of former leader Jason Kenney. The party under Ms. Smith has pitched itself as the fiscally-responsible choice compared with the NDP – one that will drive economic growth and make life more affordable.

Meanwhile, the NDP is focused on swaying conservative and undecided voters to their side by positioning Ms. Notley as a stable and capable leader. The party has repeatedly pointed to Ms. Smith’s shifting statements on issues such as health care and an ethics rule break throughout the campaign period, while underlining plans to improve health care delivery and create jobs.

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During the 2019 election, the UCP secured a landslide victory with Mr. Kenney at its helm, winning 63 of the legislature’s 87 seats. The NDP won the remaining 24 seats, making it the first election since 1993 where only two parties formed the entire assembly.

The Alberta Liberal Party and centrist Alberta Party, both of which won one seat in 2015, were wiped out of government in the past election. Neither party is running a full slate of candidates on Monday, but the Alberta Party, with 19, could still siphon some votes from the NDP.

At dissolution, the UCP held 60 seats, while the NDP had 23. There were also two MLAs sitting as independents, in addition to two vacancies.

A party must win 44 seats to form a majority government. There are 14 parties total who have registered with Elections Alberta and are running candidates, half of which are tied to Alberta sovereignty.

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Wildfires, which continue to rip through Northern and Central Alberta, have upended this month’s election campaign. Ms. Smith, in her capacity as Premier, was pulled from the campaign trail intermittently to lead government news conferences and to issue a state of provincial emergency earlier in May.

Thousands of residents have been displaced from their homes because of the blazes, which have also affected numerous election day voting locations. As a result, Elections Alberta is encouraging evacuees to visit their closest advance-voting location while also working with evacuation centres to provide special mobile voting services to displaced residents, firefighters and other emergency responders.

Tabulators, which scan and record the results of a paper ballot, are used for advance voting. While an electors’ vote is registered immediately, the results are not generated until election day comes to a close and will be unofficially released that night.

Ballot boxes at assigned voting locations on election day will be opened and counted after doors close. The results are made public as soon as possible, but finalizing the tally could drag out depending on whether recounts are necessary in tight races. In Calgary, there are a number of ridings that could be settled by just a few hundred votes.

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