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Voters wait in line to cast their ballots both inside and outside the SHOAL Centre on election day in Sidney, B.C., on Oct. 19, 2015.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Elections BC has seen almost a 100-fold increase in the number of residents intending to vote by mail in this provincial election, an unprecedented increase in Canada, even compared to other provinces where voters are casting ballots amid pandemic concerns.

British Columbians have until Friday to request a mail-in package. By Friday morning last week, the latest tally showed 646,000 British Columbians had asked for one, already close to the 665,000 Elections BC had estimated. In the previous election, only 6,500 voters chose that option.

Anton Boegman, B.C.'s chief electoral officer, said his agency estimates slightly more than one in three people would vote by mail in the Oct. 24 contest. Support for the option stands in stark contrast to the United States, where voters have been buffeted by claims from President Donald Trump that mail-in ballots can’t be trusted and accusations that politicians have interfered with the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to handle mail-in ballots.

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In Canada, mail-in voting helps public-health officials with their efforts to avoid large crowds of people standing in line at a polling station. But even compared to other jurisdictions experiencing elections amid the pandemic, British Columbia’s embrace of mail-in ballots is extraordinary. That’s likely owing to comfort with the process following two mail-in provincial referendums since 2011 and a 2015 plebiscite in the Vancouver region.

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In New Brunswick’s provincial election last month, just under 4 per cent cast their ballots by mail. In Saskatchewan, where residents head to the polls on Oct. 26, election officials are expecting about 6 per cent of registered voters to do so.

Elections BC did not have advance knowledge of the decision by NDP Leader John Horgan to call a snap election. As the pandemic began, officials began considering what a pandemic-era election would look like, and how it could work.

“The response to the ability to vote using vote by mail has been substantial and certainly unprecedented in the history of British Columbia,” Mr. Boegman said in an interview.

“We were somewhat surprised we had such a high demand right from the outset though it is still tracking within our overall plan."

Mr. Boegman said the agency has paid close attention to potential risks that could undermine the vote; he notes attempts to hack Elections BC systems and labour disruptions at Canada Post.

“For sure there is a worry, but I am confident we have identified the risks and would be able to mitigate them.” Nothing of concern has come up so far, he said. “Our systems have been running very well.”

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Voters contact Elections BC to ask for a package, which is then mailed to them. They can also pick up vote-by-mail packages in person at district electoral offices. Instructions on completing and submitting the ballots are included in the package along with a postage-paid return envelope.

Voters who request mail-in ballots must provide information that verifies their identity. If they are not registered, they must also provide ID. Voting packages are only sent to those who request them. There is intense screening to ensure people only vote once.

Elections BC has hired 130 additional staff, and, Mr. Boegman said, contractors working with Elections BC have taken similar steps. They are running extra shifts to streamline the passage of ballots from voters to the organization.

Mr. Boegman shrugs off the criticism on mail-in voting spilling over from the U.S.

“I think voters recognize that what happens in the United States is not necessarily what happens here in B.C. Based on our experience with previous referenda, I think voters are very comfortable in using the vote-by-mail system here in British Columbia,” he said.

Still, it is likely that it may take a while before the results of the election are finalized and a winner is declared.

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Mr. Boegman says there will be an accurate tally of the advance votes cast and the votes cast in person on election day. But he says it’s not clear what percentage of the overall vote that will be.

“There will definitely be an accurate result of what is known at that time, but it will not be a full reporting of all ballots cast in the election,” he said.

In comparison, he said that in the 2017 provincial election, 90 per cent of votes cast were cast in advance voting and on the general election day, and the remaining 10 per cent were cast by some form of absentee model.

“If 35 per cent of British Columbians vote by mail then at least 35 per cent of the ballots will not be counted until final count,” he said. “That could have a material impact on some races.”

The final count cannot begin until at least 13 days after voting day, and then lasts up to three days. After that, there’s a six-day window in which a judicial recount can be requested.

In the recent New Brunswick election, there were 13,000 mail-in ballots out of a total 376,903 ballots cast, according to Kim Poffenroth, chief electoral officer of Elections NB.

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As of Oct. 10, Elections Saskatchewan had received 36,907 vote-by-mail applications for that province’s Oct. 26 vote.

The agency is expecting between 40,000 and 50,000 mail-in ballots in this election, says Tim Kydd, senior director of outreach and communications for Elections Saskatchewan.

Political scientist Richard Johnston says mail-in voting will leave a major mark on B.C. long after the pandemic recedes.

“I think we have probably seen a permanent order of magnitude shift from in-person to mail-in,” said the professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.

“I have yet to talk to anyone in my circle of friends and family who is not voting by mail."

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