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‘Not unreasonable to be unnerved’: Messages of rigged votes and civil war new to Alberta provincial elections

As the countdown ticks down until election day on Monday, May 29, the rhetoric around the legitimacy of the election has become hot on social media.

Although rare, calls echoing the American presidential election of 2020 about elections being stolen from their rightful candidates to outright calls for civil war, have become part of the election discourse for the 2023 Alberta provincial election.

One such message posted over the weekend—and roundly refuted by individuals on the left and the right—claimed that “if, for some reason Notley won the election, Alberta would be in a civil war.”

“The only way they win is by cheating. And we won’t stand around and wait for a court date if they cheat. We will hop in our trucks and we will hunt every last one of them down and hold them accountable.”

The accountability, implied by the now deleted account, was through violence. Before being deleted, that account which had over 11,000 followers, included elected officials in the province.

Another account that was also targeting the Alberta NDP said that it was unquestionable that party would steal the election, and that the RCMP would be used to “stomp on dissenters.”

Other messages made claims about the election being rigged against conservatives, echoing language used by Donald Trump and his supporters after the 2020 American presidential election.

University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young said that these messages were a reflection of a mindset that can now be found amongst a small number of Albertans. Largely, she said, as a result of the sea change in provincial politics.

“It’s not unreasonable to be unnerved by this,” she said.

Shifting politics in Alberta leads to shifting expectations of election outcomes

Young described the political situation as a shifting one, where the outcome of any given election was no longer certain.

She said that prior to 2015, the expectation was that Albertans would vote and that the outcome would be guaranteed progressive conservative victory.

“Alberta until 2015 was a really unique political system. I’m not suggesting that elections were not democratic, because that’s not at all what I’m trying to say. But it’s what political scientists would call a single-party, dominant-party system.

“We had elections, they were free and fair, and one party always won.”

It was a system that was peculiar within the Canadian context, said Young. Though, it’s not without precedence internationally, as nations like Japan have had similar single-party, dominant-party systems.

“It’s only recently that we’ve had competitive elections in Alberta,” she said.

“If we were looking in 2005 or 2012, there wouldn’t be messages like this, because in an election you always knew who the winner was going to be.”

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley said that she believed much of the anger in this election has been limited to a very small number of people, and their messages were not representative of the province.

“The last three or four years have been very stressful for a lot of folks and we talk a lot about mental health issues that folks are struggling with, and I think that in a very small number of cases, that’s where it ends up looking like,” Notley said.

UCP leader Danielle Smith was asked about the growing division in Alberta politics during a media conference on Wednesday. She said they’ve tried to run a positive campaign about a more optimistic vision for Alberta.

“I think that candidates and parties that run nothing but fear and smear and misinformation, they’re trying to tap into negative emotion and I just don’t think Albertans are there,” she said.

LWC asked the UCP about the civil war comments coming from anti-NDP Alberta voters.

“The United Conservative Party denounces this message and all acts of violence, full stop,” they wrote in an emailed response.

Civil War? Not likely

In the United States, Young said, there has been a non-trivial portion of Americans that believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.

Within Alberta, she said, that set of beliefs had potentially created the same sort of mindset amongst a small number of people living in this province.

“How seriously should we take it? Do I think there will be a civil war in Alberta if the NDP wins? No, I don’t think that’s the case,” Young said.

“But any time we see signaling that the outcome of an election won’t be accepted, we should be concerned. We have well-run elections in Canada relative to the rest of the world, and there is no reason to believe that an election can be stolen.”

Young said any sort of signaling by individuals that because their preferred party or candidate didn’t win and therefore the election must be stolen is worrisome.

“It signals a lack of what’s called losers’ consent, and that’s fundamental to democracy. Democracies only work if losers are willing to concede the election and consent to be governed by whoever wins—and it works on both sides of the political spectrum,” she said.

“It’s really important for the leaders of both parties to combat this by conceding on election night when it’s time to concede because that sends a signal to their most fervent supporters.”

Young drew a distinction between candidates questioning the rules of how elections are run, as opposed to believing that an election is rigged.

“In a democratic system, there is no place for saying it’s impossible for anyone but this party to win,” she said.

“That is an undemocratic statement. In contrast to that, I think there has to be room for candidates to question the tactics of their opponents and to question the rules of the game.”

She said that it’s fair for candidates to question whether donation limits, for example, constitute an unfair advantage in an election.

“You can’t say, on election night, I reject the outcome because the rules of the game were unfair.”

“You have to say, ‘I accept the outcome.’ You know, my opponent has won, I sure would like to live in a system where we had different rules about election finance, or whatever it is, but that doesn’t take away from giving consent that you’ve lost.”

Notley said that any discussion of civil war as part of the Alberta provincial election was concerning.

“It obviously reflects an extreme minority of Albertans—a very small number of folks,” she said.

Attacks on NDP part of the growing pains of democracy

Young said that not all of the current messaging around civil wars and stolen elections could be pointed to as a result of broader international or American trends.

She referenced the 2016 messaging around the so-called Kudatah, in which conservative Albertans talked openly, although not seriously, about performing a coup d’etat against the then-elected NDP government.

“I think that really was very much part of the growing pains for Alberta to become a two-party democracy, where there’s a more general acceptance of the idea that parties rotate in and out of government,” Young said.

She said that the language used to describe what these small groups of individuals want though has matched what has been used elsewhere, along with a greater susceptibility to those cross-border messages.

The violent imagery of that messaging, though, reminded Young of another outcome for MLA Shannon Phillips.

“The whole time the NDP was in government, she had to have police stationed outside her constituency office, because there wasn’t acceptance of the outcome of the election,” Young said.

“We’ve seen politicians killed in democracies. So it’s not unreasonable to be unnerved by these kinds of statements. That having been said, in Alberta, in 2015, we had an unexpected result. We didn’t have a civil war. The rule of law did its job.”

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Arkansas State Senator Linda Collins, and British MP Jo Cox are among the politicians that have been killed in democratic countries.

Notley said that generally, the experience that the party and its candidates have had during this election has been a positive one.

“This campaign compared even to 2019, just the day-to-day kind of experience we have with folks making our way around in a very public way, it’s been very warm and welcoming,” she said.

“We’ve seen almost none of that, and certainly just a fraction of it compared to what it looks like from 2019. So I think it’s really just a function of unique individuals and not a big trend.”

Smith said that Albertans feel optimistic about where the province is headed. She said she’s been proud to run on the party’s record since she took office last year.

“I know that when we come together as a family, an Alberta family, we can overcome any obstacle and I think people are ready to put some of the division of the past behind them and they want to move forward,” she said in response to the question on a divided Alberta.

Protecting democracy

Notley said that if these sorts of comments were actually impacting the ability of Albertans to cast their votes, then that is the point where law enforcement would be needed.

“The right to vote is fundamental to our province and in our country, and no one should ever feel like it’s not safe for them to vote,” she said.

One day into the advance voting in Alberta, it doesn’t appear as whole Albertans have been dissuaded from going to the polls or are afraid of casting their votes.

As of the advance voting locations closing on May 23, Albertans smashed previous records with 161,830 people taking the opportunity to cast their ballot.

Complaints have largely centered around the proxies for individual campaigns being too close to polls and engaging in campaigning, as opposed to threats of violence.

Young said that Albertans should take comfort in that while individuals have made statements calling the election into question, the candidates themselves have not.

“The US teetered on the brink because the political actors engaged in this messaging. Here, we have citizens saying things that are unfortunate and illegitimate and worrisome, but we don’t have the leader of the UCP or UCPs candidate saying these things,” Young said.

“We have every reason to believe that on election night if there’s a clear outcome, the loser will concede.”