Alberta election: Want a good sign for how a riding will vote? Look to the lawns

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How much do campaign signs affect an election?
They’re a sure signal that an election is underway, but do election signs make a difference when it comes to what is sure to be a tight race? Adam MacVicar reports. – May 3, 2023

It’s a sure sign that an election is underway: campaign signs coating public boulevards and front lawns across Alberta.

But there is a debate whether election signs make a difference as parties try to garner precious votes in what polls show is set to be a tight race to form Alberta’s next government.

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the campaigns sure think so.

“The parties spent a lot of money and volunteer time in collecting the data, putting up the signs, paying for the signs, taking the signs down,” Bratt said.

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Voting options for 2023 Alberta Election

In the riding of Calgary-Cross, United Conservative Party incumbent candidate Mickey Amery said there has been an increase in requests for his campaign’s signs.

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“It signifies strong support in our communities,” Amery told Global News. “We’ve had a tremendous uptake in our signs; I think we’ve installed 1,000 signs so far, and we’re only getting started.”

Alberta’s NDP has also reported a significant increase in lawn sign requests from voters province-wide compared to the 2019 provincial election.

“In 2019, we only had 7,000 lawn signs coming into it; this time we’ve got more than 60,000 lawn signs,” Calgary-Peigan NDP candidate Denis Ram said.

Bratt and his colleague, Janet Brown, studied the science behind the signs by analyzing the number of election signs on private property during by-elections in Calgary in 2014 and the federal race in Calgary-Centre in 2015.

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According to Bratt, the signs on people’s front lawns are a good indication of which way a riding will vote on election day.

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“We found that there was a strong correlation between the share of signs versus the vote share,” Bratt said.

“Therefore, we do think it has predictive value of how an election is going to go.”

However, Bratt said it’s important to note the metric his analysis used was signs on private property, not public property, because that represented a “likely voter” who is “advertising their support for a particular party.”

But could those signs on a neighbour’s lawn influence others to vote the same way?

Bratt said he’s heard from campaign professionals that one sign can draw 10 votes.

“You’re walking your dog, you’re driving to work, and you see a lot of different signs, you get a sense of momentum,” Bratt said.

“It’s not ads directly coming from the party. It’s ads from individuals — from neighbours, from ordinary people — and that carries a higher value than just ads on TV.”

Some Calgarians who weighed in on the sign psychology told Global News that while the signs may not swing their vote one way or the other, they still see value in their use as a campaign tool.

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“I don’t think it personally influences myself on the choice I want to make,” Grace Johnston said. “But overall, I think it gives you a little bit more of an idea of who’s in the election for people who don’t know.”

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Bratt said there are some caveats to his analysis, with election signs carrying more significance in urban ridings rather than rural ridings due to the size and scope of those rural areas.

In those urban areas, Bratt said sign support is harder to track in ridings with a lot of apartment and condo buildings.

Bratt also pointed to studies published in the U.S. in recent years that found election signs only have a marginal impact of “a couple of percentage points” on the result of the vote.

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But with both the UCP and NDP is a statistical tie in Calgary, Bratt said getting every vote matters.

“A couple percentage points in Calgary-Glenmore or Calgary-Acadia could make the difference between who forms the government and who doesn’t,” Bratt said.

Albertans head to the polls on May 29.

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