UPDATE: 10:51 p.m.
Alberta’s United Conservative Party rode a wave of rural support Monday to win a renewed majority in the provincial election — but not before the NDP took a big bite out of its support.
Danielle Smith’s UCP, as expected, captured almost all seats outside the province's two major cities. It lost Edmonton, also as predicted, but held on to just enough support in battleground Calgary to secure a majority in the 87-seat legislature.
The UCP had claimed about 50 seats but a final tally was unknown late into the evening given close races in Calgary.
It was an election night crippled by slow reporting from Elections Alberta. Only a small fraction of results were available 90 minutes after polls closed and a UCP win wasn’t called for another 90 minutes after that.
Smith easily won her seat in Brooks-Medicine Hat.
It was the second victory in seven months for Smith, 52. She had been out of politics for seven years, working mainly as Calgary-based radio talk-show host and political pundit.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley won her seat in Edmonton-Strathcona for the fifth time.
But the loss is expected to raise questions about whether the 59-year-old daughter of former Alberta NDP leader Grant Notley has taken the party as far as she can.
Support for third parties, such as the centrist Alberta Party, fell away as voters concentrated on either supporting or defeating the two main contenders.
There were 758,550 votes cast in advance polling, smashing the previous record of 700,746 in 2019.
Key cabinet ministers Adriana LaGrange (Education), Rebecca Schulz (Municipal Affairs), Nate Horner (Agriculture) and Rick Wilson (Indigenous Relations) retained their seats.
However, Jason Copping, who was health minister, went down to defeat in Calgary-Varsity as did Nicholas Milliken, the minister for mental health and addiction, in Calgary Currie and deputy premier Kaycee Madu in Edmonton-South West.
Deputy premier Nathan Neudorf in Lethbridge East and Tyler Shandro, the justice minister in Calgary-Acadia, were in tough fights with the NDP late into the night.
For the UCP, the math was simple and ultimately effective: continue its dominance in the 41 seats outside Edmonton and Calgary then use that as a springboard to win just enough in Calgary to capture the 44 seats required for a majority.
Smith ran on a platform of fighting crime and lowering personal income taxes in what is already the lowest-taxed jurisdiction in Canada. She promised a bill forbidding any future hikes to corporate or personal income taxes without a referendum.
She also aimed to woo voters in Calgary by announcing, on the eve of the race, a $330-million provincial contribution to a $1.2-billion deal with the city and the owners of the Calgary Flames for a new NHL arena.
The NDP dominated in Edmonton, a city in which they won all but one seat in 2019.
The three Calgary NDP incumbents – Kathleen Ganley, Irfan Sabir and Joe Ceci — were all re-elected, as were stalwarts Sarah Hoffman, Shannon Phillips and Heather Sweet.
ORIGINAL STORY: 7:30 p.m.
Polls have closed in the Alberta election in what's expected to be a nail-biter finish between the province's two dominant parties.
Danielle Smith’s United Conservative Party is fighting to win a second consecutive majority government, while Rachel Notley’s NDP is trying to regain the government it lost to the UCP in 2019.
Both leaders have been premier and leaders of the official Opposition.
Advance polls suggest voter turnout will be heavy.
“For the second election in a row we have seen record-breaking voter turnout during advance voting days,” Glen Resler, chief electoral officer for Elections Alberta, said in a release Monday.
In the 2019 election, 700,476 ballots were cast during five days of advance voting. This year's total was at least 758,550.
The campaign has taken place alongside a record-breaking spring for wildfires in Alberta. Ten communities were under evacuation orders Monday.
Elections Alberta set up alternate voting locations for those displaced. Evacuation was added as an eligible reason to vote by special ballot and mobile voting stations were placed in evacuation centres.
Command centres also worked to have special ballots delivered to fire fighters and emergency crews.
Calgary has been seen as the battleground during this campaign and five of the top 10 advance polling stations were in that city. Two were in Edmonton suburbs.
To win, the NDP would have to continue its dominance in Edmonton, flip the majority in Calgary and hope for some help in smaller cities, while defeating scores of UCP incumbents including cabinet ministers.
The NDP needs to swing 20 seats in the 87-seat legislature.
Polls suggest the UCP should continue its near total domination in rural areas and smaller centres, giving it a cushion of up to 40 or so seats to reach the threshold of 44 needed to form a majority government.
The month-long campaign has been dominated by the economy and health care.
Albertans are struggling with high costs for consumer goods, a shortage of family doctors and long waits in emergency rooms.
Smith has promised to keep Alberta the lowest tax regime in Canada.
Her government, she says, would introduce a law to mandate a binding referendum before any personal or corporate income tax hikes. There would also be tax changes to benefit those making more than $60,000 a year, at a cost of $1 billion annually to the treasury.
The NDP is also promising to maintain Alberta's status as Canada's lowest tax regime. It has pledged to end the tax on small businesses and raise the corporate income tax to 11 per cent from eight per cent, which it says would help pay for investments while maintaining the lowest corporate rate in Canada.
The NDP also promises legislation this summer to counteract UCP policies that hiked the cost of utilities, auto insurance, a range of fees and tuition.
Both leaders have promised to preserve the publicly funded health system while creating more primary care teams — physicians accompanied by related specialists such as nurses and therapists — so more Albertans are able to access a family doctor and not clog emergency wards for care.
Polls also show trust is a key issue, with Notley viewed more favourably than her party and vice versa for Smith.
Smith has been dogged during the campaign by past comments she made comparing those who took the COVID-19 vaccine to credulous followers of Adolf Hitler. A report also came out mid-campaign from the province's ethics commissioner that concluded Smith undermined the rule of law by pressuring her justice minister to end the criminal court case of a COVID-19 protester.