Could COVID vaccination status change voting in Alberta?

CALGARY—Predicting how people will vote has never been easy.

But pollsters who have long kept an eye on factors like education, gender and occupation are increasingly seeing a new force appearing in their numbers: vaccination status. And it’s not as simple as just getting vaccinated or not getting vaccinated.

With just days to go before the Alberta election on Monday, a new poll asked 1,741 people about how they planned to vote. The results varied by region, race, and religion of the respondent, but a number did not suggest ambiguity. Of people not vaccinated against COVID-19, 91.1 percent of determined voters intended to vote for the United Conservatives and Danielle Smith, a leader who refused an mRNA vaccine and compared the vaccinated with followers of Hitler.

“I think it’s perhaps the strongest correlation I’ve ever seen in a political poll,” said Frank Graves, a pollster for EKOS.

The results are the product of a random telephone sample of adults carried out in the last week, with a margin of error of 2.35 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The numbers come just days before Alberta chooses between Smith’s UCP and Rachel Notley’s New Democrats. Each leader has presented a very different vision of the province, with one of the main divisions being the role of health care and public health. But the EKOS study suggests that misinformation is at play here, too, as political ideology increasingly overlaps with opinions on issues that are often used to spread false information, such as vaccine safety, inflation, and climate change.

Respondents who believed the least amount of misinformation were most likely to support the NDP, while those who scored highest on the survey’s “disinformation index” tended to support the UCP.

“Alberta is divided into two deeply polarized sides,” Graves said, with one side relatively trusting of mainstream information sources, the other skeptical of social institutions and more open to ideas not supported by science.

Despite opposition to vaccination mandates by Smith and others, the vast majority of Albertans are vaccinated against COVID, though the provincial rate is slightly below the national numbers. As of this spring, federal figures show that 79.7% of Albertans received at least one vaccination, compared to the national average of 83.2%.

Enthusiasm for shooting appears to have waned more in Alberta in recent months than in other parts of the country. According to Health Canada, as of the end of April, about 12.8 percent of Canadians had received a booster or their primary set of COVID vaccines in the past six months. But in Alberta, that number drops to just 6.4 percent, the lowest provincial rate in the country by a significant margin.

The new poll suggests that those who have received more than two vaccine injections are much more supportive of the NDP, Graves says. Meanwhile, those who received just one or two appear to be more politically aligned with the unvaccinated, with nearly two-thirds supporting the UCP.

That drop in vaccination coincides with Smith’s time as prime minister. The veteran libertarian and radio personality succeeded Jason Kenney as prime minister by capitalizing on a wave of pandemic anger. In one of his first days in office, Smith referred to the unvaccinated as “the most discriminated group” he has ever seen.

Being resistant to vaccines is increasingly an ideological flag rather than a medical option, said Tim Caulfield, a disinformation expert at the University of Alberta and Canada’s research chair in health, law and policy.

“My concern is that when politicians like Smith push anti-vaccine rhetoric (and I think it’s fair to categorize it that way), it legitimizes and normalizes harmful misinformation,” he said in an email. “Also, it becomes part of a political platform.”

More generally, Caulfield argues that she is among the politicians who have pushed a revisionist version of history as the pandemic began to abate, arguing that even minor public health restrictions amount to “lockdowns” which, in her time, they were not helpful in slowing the spread of a once mysterious virus.

That kind of rhetoric “helps foster a culture of mistrust, which helps her politically but, in the long run, it’s the kind of noise that damages democracy, public health and social cohesion,” she says.

Pollsters strive to make sure their samples are representative of the population as a whole, but in recent years it has become difficult for pollsters to capture the views of the growing number of people who distrust the government, Graves says. That’s part of the reason support for Donald Trump was initially underestimated, she says.

EKOS began to ask about the vaccination status because it is an option that is strongly related to trust in the institutions, he says.

The growing polarization also extends to beliefs about issues that are not supported by science, including the use of ivermectin to treat COVID. Despite no actual peer-reviewed evidence that the drug works, a 2021 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that four in 10 Americans said they would still take it if exposed to someone with COVID. That number rose to seven in 10 among heavy consumers of conservative media.

In the Alberta case, the pollsters also created a misinformation index that assessed how likely people were to reject false information, including that vaccine-related deaths are hidden from the public, that COVID vaccines can cause infertility, or alter your DNA. and that inflation is higher in Canada than the US, all of which have been refuted by research. They also tested whether people believed that greenhouse gases are fueling climate change.

The results here also seemed to suggest increasing polarization. For example, the poll found that nearly nine in 10 NDP supporters believe that greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change, a theory supported by the vast majority of the scientific community, while only a third of voters of the UCP believe it.

This is not the first time that vaccination has reflected political belief. A similar survey last year found that unvaccinated Canadians were about 12 times more likely than those who had received three shots to believe that Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine was justified.

That EKOS study found that 26 percent of those who said they weren’t vaccinated supported Vladimir Putin’s offensive, and another 35 percent offered no opinion. Only two percent of vaccinated Canadians surveyed agreed, and four percent had no opinion.

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