With British Columbians expected to wait two weeks or longer for final elections results amid an unprecedented amount of mail-in-ballots, Elections BC will take extra steps to inform the province of results as they roll out and final results will come in staggered across British Columbia.
Mail-in ballots, typically tabulated and reported to the public after they have all been counted, will be released during counting on a daily basis. In addition, results for each electoral district will be reported when counting is finished.
But those ballots will not begin to get counted until Nov. 6 — 13 days after general voting day on Oct.. 24.
“We felt it was important to be transparent and give information as we know it,” said Yvonne Koehn, deputy chief electoral officer of corporate services at Elections BC, during a media briefing on Friday (Oct. 23).
On general voting day, polls close at 8 p.m. At that time, election officials will count two types of ballots: advance voting ballots cast by voters in their own electoral districts and ballots cast by voters at their assigned voting place on election day.
The counting — all done by hand — of those ballots is called the initial count. In a typical election, those votes would account for about 90 per cent of votes cast. However, this is not a typical year and it is not a typical election. Elections BC expects between 65 and 70 per cent all all votes cast to be counted in Oct. 24, with the rest not being counted until Nov. 6 and onward.
A final count occurring two weeks and longer after voting day will be more consequential and could potentially determine the outcome for local ridings and which party forms government, depending on how many people in each riding voted by mail or another absentee voting method.
During final count, six kinds of absentee ballots, including mail-in voting, are counted. Other examples of absentee voting include voters choosing to vote outside their electoral district of residence at advance or general voting or at a voting place other than their assigned voting place on general voting day.
Per the Election Act, the final count of absentee voting takes place 13 days after voting day, so elections officials can ensure election integrity. They check, for example, to ensure someone has not cast multiple ballots at the polls and by mail. It takes at least 13 days, but could take longer this year, based on the high volume.
The final count numbers usually don’t change results gleaned from general voting day and the process has not changed from past elections, as set out in the Election Act. What has changed this year, however, is the pandemic and a record number of requests for mail-in voter packages, included amongst that absentee vote category.
This year, general voting day could produce 20 per cent fewer results, based on estimates. The agency reported on Friday at least 500,000 absentee ballots will be counted, the majority of which will be mail-in. As of Friday morning, Elections BC received close to 480,000 mail-in ballots, a more than 7,000-per-cent increase over the 2017 election. Another 680,000 voters — a record — cast ballots in the seven-day advance voting period, which ended on Oct. 21.
Porter said Elections BC has never processed this many absentee ballots before and it has additional resourcing — at a cost that will not be reported until after the election — to handle the influx. In the 2017 election — which cost an estimated $39 million to conduct, it took two to three days to count the 200,000 or so absentee ballots. This year, it could take longer.
Elections BC had suggested voters submit mail-in ballots by Oct. 17 to meet a deadline to receive them by Oct. 24 at 8 p.m., when the polls close. Elections BC is confident those who followed that recommendation will be included in the count and staff will be at Canada Post’s main sorting station in Richmond until polls close to collect mail-in ballots.
Those who submitted their ballots later, however, will not see their ballot count if it arrives after 8 p.m. on Oct. 24. Voters will not be notified if their vote was received.
Elections BC is warning voters not to vote twice, if they sent in their vote by mail late. Another vote would be considered multiple voting. Those who do so could be subject to an investigation.
Meanwhile, all absentee ballots must be screened before being accepted for counting, receiving several checks. Again, it is all done manually, though changes being contemplated could result in counting by machine in future B.C. elections. Voter eligibility, registration and single-time voting are among checks verified.
Elections BC officials are already working to input certification envelopes it has received but won’t know the total number of absentee ballots until days after the election. On election night, election officials will submit counts of the certification envelopes to the Elections BC headquarters in Victoria. That figure will include absentee votes cast on election day, but not mail-in ballots. Once all mail-in certification envelopes are entered into a system by Elections BC, it will know which district they belong to and a district-by-district breakdown will be known five to six days after election day. The public will be informed.
Some certification envelopes will be inadmissible. If they don’t contain a ballot or contain two ballots for one household, they will be put aside and not counted. The so-called “set-a-sides” will be kept in the event of a judicial recount.
Once the final count begins, results will be published on Elections BC’s website, at results.elections.bc.ca. Each district electoral officer will have counting teams during final count and all absentee ballot types will be counted at the same time. As soon as a type of absentee ballot is completely counted, results will be published online.
“What’s different for this election is that we will be updating results with counted mail-in ballots at the end of every day,” Koehn said.
Elections BC will also indicate online progress of the number of absentee ballots reported. Once a district has completed counting all absentee ballots, final results in that district will be announced, meaning results across the province will be revealed in a staggered fashion based on different counting speeds and the number of absentee ballots to be counted in each location.
“It will take as long as it takes,” Porter said.