COVID-19 has made this provincial election different from any other.
According to Elections B.C., this is the first time an election has been held in the province during a pandemic and it has presented significant administrative challenges, including vote tabulation.
Instead of voting on election day, Oct. 24, many British Columbians chose to request mail-in voting packages or cast their ballots at advance polls. Over seven days, 681,000 people voted in person at advance polls and, as of Thursday night, almost 480,000 had returned mail-in packages. In total, about 3.5 million people are registered to vote in B.C.
“Never before have so many voters voted before election day in British Columbia electoral history,” said Charles Porter, deputy chief electoral officer.
While the votes from advance polls are counted on election night along with ballots cast that day, mail-in ballots are processed and counted in the weeks following the election. That means the outcome of many races — possibly the election — could be delayed.
Here is how the counting process is expected to unfold.
On election night, Elections B.C. will provide preliminary results, which will include votes from seven days of advance voting and election day. According to Elections B.C., 681,000 people voted in advance, but the number of votes considered during the initial count will depend on how many people vote in person on election day. In 2017, 617,000 people voted at advance polls and 1.2 million voted on election day.
Normally, 90 per cent of ballots cast in an election are counted at initial count, but it’s likely that figure will be much lower because of the significant increase in mail-in ballots — possibly as low as 65 to 70 per cent.
Typically, the first results are posted to Elections B.C.’s website half an hour after polls close at 8 p.m., and numbers are updated as the initial count progresses.
Mail-in ballot results will not be included because they are accepted at locations across the province until polls close on Oct. 24 and need to be processed before they are counted.
Mail-in and absentee ballots
There are a number of ways to cast an absentee vote, including voting outside of one’s electoral district, at a voting place other than one’s assigned location, at a district electoral office, or by mail-in ballot.
Last election, there were more than 160,000 absentee ballots — out of almost two million votes — 6,500 of which were mail-in. But almost 725,000 vote-by-mail packages were issued for this election, about 66 per cent of which had been returned by Thursday evening.
The total number of mail-in ballots will not be available on election night, but a count will be available for absentee ballots that were cast on election day and during advance voting. Elections B.C. expects to have a figure for the total number of certification envelopes from mail-ins that will be considered for the final count a few days after election day. A breakdown of mail-in ballots by district will be available within five or six days.
Preparing for the final count
The final count normally begins 13 days after voting day.
During that gap, absentee ballots, which can be received and cast throughout the province, are sent to the voter’s home district and screened for eligibility before counting. That includes checking certification envelopes to make sure that legislative requirements are met, such as voter eligibility. Those that don’t meet requirements are set aside and not counted.
Screening cannot happen until after voting day, so Elections B.C. can ensure people don’t vote more than once.
As part of final count, district electoral officers may recount some or all of the ballots from the initial count. This is done when the difference between the top two candidates in a district is 100 votes or fewer. A recount can also be done at a candidate’s request, if they meet certain criteria.
In 2017, almost 200,000 ballots were processed during the 13-day preparation period. This year, Elections B.C. expects at least 500,000 absentee ballots — likely more — with the majority of them being mail-in.
“Because of the significant volume of vote by mail, preparations for final count and the count itself may take longer than usual. Our commitment is to complete this process as quickly as possible while maintaining the necessary integrity checks,” said Porter.
The final ballot count usually takes three days, but this time it could take longer because of the volume of mail-ins. All votes are counted by hand.
For this reason, Elections B.C. has added more people to count votes — dedicated teams will be in each electoral district, with one focused on mail-in ballots and others working on other stages of the final count, such as confirming the accuracy of the initial count, shipping and receiving certification envelopes, and screening other types of absentee ballots.
Counting will likely be staggered by district. Those having fewer mail-in ballots may be able to start and report earlier while others will need more time to prepare. After the final count begins, results will be staggered and posted as teams in each district complete counting. Mail-in ballot tallies will be reported at the end of each day of counting.
Once a district completes its count of absentee ballots, final results will be announced and reported on the Elections B.C. website . After a final count, candidates have six days to request a judicial recount. One must occur if there is a tie between the top two candidates or a victory margin of less than 1/500th of the total ballots considered. Once the judicial recount request period has expired and any judicial recounts have been completed, districts returns their writ of election to the chief electoral officer, ending the election period in that district.
To close the election, the chief electoral officer delivers a report to the clerk of the legislative assembly that shows the individuals elected to serve as MLA. The goal is to meet a writ return date of Nov. 16.