With more British Columbians opting to vote by mail in the election during the COVID-19 pandemic, the province won’t likely have a clear picture of the winning party until weeks after general election day, Oct. 24.
Typically, most ballots can be counted on election night, providing near-certainty about who won before absentee ballots — which include mail-in-ballots, but also other methods of voting and are counted about two weeks after the fact — are tallied.
A significant surge in mail-in-voter requests this year, however, means election night won’t tell the whole picture.
“The final results of the election are always reported after that final count of absentee ballots,” Elections BC communications director Andrew Watson said. “But usually, we have a much better sense of what the outcome’s going to be because we’ve counted 90 per cent of the ballots on election night.”
In this election, that election night percentage will be much lower.
Elections BC planned for a pandemic election with as much as 35 per cent of the electorate voting by mail, equating to 800,000 of the eligible 3.5-million ballots — or 23 per cent of all eligible ballots.
As of Oct. 14, Watson said, Elections BC had received about 700,000 vote-by-mail package requests and the requests are still coming in as the Oct. 17 request deadline nears. The numbers reflect a significant increase over the 6,500 people who voted by mail in the 2017, with that provincial election featuring about 200,000 total absentee ballots.
Some variables remain, including individuals who decide to vote in person, despite requesting a mail-in package (which is allowed), and those who voted via other absentee-ballot methods before choosing to vote by mail.
Watson said despite the surge in requests for mail-in-voting packages, the practise of counting votes will be the same in 2020 as in previous provincial elections because the process is legislated via the Election Act to protect election integrity.
He said the process to count mail-in ballots includes 13 days of preparatory work after election day, allowing Elections BC to screen ballots to prevent duplicate voting and ensure they were submitted by eligible voters. Screening involves running voter information against voter lists both manually and using technology. Counting follows the nearly two weeks of prep, which means final results won’t be known until early or mid-November.
In the 2017 election, it took Elections BC two to three days to count the 200,000 absentee ballots. Using 2017 mail-in ballot counting timelines, British Columbia wouldn’t know its government for 15 to 16 days after the Oct. 24 election, so Nov. 8 or Nov. 9 would be pegged as the dates.
However, Watson noted a “significant increase” in mail-in and absentee ballots that could result in a longer process.
“With volume, those timelines could be extended because we’ve never counted this many ballots before,” he said.
Watson said Elections BC understands voters will want to know the results as soon as possible, noting Elections BC is hiring additional people to count mail-in ballots. Watson could not say how many additional people would be hired nor how much it will cost, with election expenses revealed after the election. Meanwhile, the province will remain in caretaker mode until the election results are finalized.
“Even after the final count of absentee ballots, there is a six-day-period where judicial recounts can be made,” Watson said. “Then, following that period, and any judicial recounts that may occur, the writs of election are returned and the election period formally comes to an end under the act.”