OTTAWA — The campaigning is over, the opinion surveys have all been done and now the only poll that counts is underway.
Canadians are voting today in the fourth federal election in seven years and, by most accounts, it’s going to be a game-changer.
A buoyant Stephen Harper cast his ballot at an elementary-junior high school in his Calgary Southwest riding, with wife Laureen and their two children at his side.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and his NDP rival, Jack Layton, both voted in their Toronto ridings earlier in the day, reflecting what is expected to be the most significant dynamic of the national ballot.
Ignatieff, a relative unknown going into the 36-day race, got a boost early on but his support appeared to fade as the campaign evolved.
Layton’s NDP surged to unprecedented levels in Quebec after the leaders’ debate and appeared to gain momentum across Canada in the last two weeks of the campaign.
The final public-opinion poll of the campaign — conducted by The Canadian Press Harris-Decima, and released Sunday — suggested Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were at 36 per cent support, with the NDP six points back at 30 per cent and the Liberals languishing at 19.
The Greens and Bloc Quebecois were well back nationally, with the separatist party lagging far behind the NDP even on its home turf.
How those numbers will play out, and whether the surge in NDP popularity will only serve to split the left-leaning vote enough for Harper’s Tories to seize a majority, was the big question going into the day’s balloting.
If Harper had any doubts, he wasn’t showing it.
“It’s a great day,” he declared. “It’s a great democracy. The sky is blue.”
Election day didn’t go off without a hitch for the Harpers, however. An aide had to retrieve Laureen Harper’s purse — and the identification in it — from their vehicle before she could vote.
The family then made an unannounced foray into the adjacent schoolyard, where the prime minister was mobbed by schoolkids wanting to shake his hand.
Layton voted in his Toronto Danforth riding, about a block from his home, accompanied by his wife, incumbent New Democrat Olivia Chow, along with his mother-in-law, his daughter and granddaughter.
“We’re feeling optimistic,” Layton said. “The future of our country, our wonderful country, lies in the hands of Canadians today and I think many will choose change.”
He said he gets the sense Canadians “will break out of the old patterns and the old habits” of voting for either the Conservatives or the Liberals.
Ignatieff shook hands as he arrived at a polling station in a junior high school in suburban Etobicoke, trailed by news media. He appeared a bit on edge and after slowly inserting his ballot in the box, he got on the bus and waved to the cameras.
Later, he and wife Zsuzsanna Zohar visited a nursing home. The Liberal leader said it “feels great” to vote after the rigorous campaign.
“It’s an important moment for every citizen, it’s an important moment for me, so I was delighted to vote today.”
“I am getting reports of good turnout today so that’s terrific.”
Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe cast his ballot in the morning in the Montreal riding where he’s believed to be fighting for his own seat.
“It’s democracy,” Duceppe said. “You have to vote. Democracy is precious. I always have butterflies (on election day). That’s normal. I’m confident. And I’m asking people to vote.”
And in the British Columbia riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, Green Leader Elizabeth May was looking to defeat Tory cabinet minister Gary Lunn.
May focused virtually her entire campaign on the riding in her attempt to gain a voice inside the House of Commons. Insiders suggest the race is too close to call.
Depending largely on those vote splits, the Conservatives appeared to be on the cusp of their first majority since Harper initially took power in January 2006.
Conventional wisdom suggests high voter turnout is generally bad for the governing party. Voters turned out in record numbers for early balloting on Easter weekend but it is not known if that was because of the holiday or other reasons.
“We can’t say if that is going to translate into election day — we don’t know,” an Elections Canada spokesman said today.
“We’re certainly hoping that there’s a good participation, but we don’t have any hard data to support it.”
The agency does not release turnout data until the voting is done this evening.
Christian Rouillard, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, notes overall election turnout has been dropping in recent years — hitting just 58.8 per cent in 2008.
Rouillard said the youth vote, just 37.4 per cent among 18- to 24-year-olds last time out, could prove a critical element to the outcome tonight.
Since the writ was dropped March 26, online campaigns and so-called “vote mobs” aimed to get young people engaged as never before.
“These tend to be less conservative as a group,” Rouillard said, “so if the young people … choose not to vote, then I think that would, in fact, favour the Conservative government.”