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B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan leaves with his friend and local resident Kody Bell at Luxton Hall after voting in advance polls for the provincial election in Langford, B.C., Oct. 19, 2020.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

On election night three years ago, the BC NDP candidate in the riding of Courtenay-Comox was ahead by just nine votes – a lead that grew to 189 after the counting of mail-in ballots was finished two weeks later.

The New Democrats winning that coastal region ended former Liberal premier Christy Clark’s hopes for a one-seat majority and, ultimately, led to the Greens agreeing to support a minority NDP government.

The suspense on election night will likely stretch into the following weeks this year as a handful of B.C.'s 87 ridings are expected to be too close to call, given an unprecedented 724,000 voters – a fifth of all registered adults in the province – have asked for a mail-in ballot.

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During a news conference on the final day of the campaign, Anton Boegman, B.C.'s Chief Electoral Officer, told reporters the incredible mail-in voting response means roughly two-thirds of all votes will be counted on election night, far lower than the 90 per cent typical in past elections.

“Our commitment is to complete this process as quickly as possible,” he said.

He added that Elections BC won’t be able to say how many votes were cast by mail in each riding until almost a week after polling stations close, which will add more uncertainty in tight races. Six candidates were elected in 2017 with margins of victory representing less than 5 per cent of votes in their ridings.

As of Friday morning, nearly 480,000 people had already mailed in their votes. The remaining 245,379 with outstanding ballots can still return them at any local election office or polling station before 8 p.m. on Saturday. Elections BC had previously estimated 665,000 would participate by mail. In the 2017 contest, only 6,500 voters chose that option.

“Never before have so many voters voted before election day,” Mr. Boegman said.

He said his agency is aiming to deliver the final results of the election by Nov. 16, but it could take more time.

“We will keep counting until it’s finished,” he said.

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While the pandemic has posed myriad problems for political parties and electoral officials alike, tens of thousands of people have now discovered the convenience of voting from the comfort of their own homes and will not return to voting in person, according to a leading elections expert.

“Mail balloting is really here to stay,” said Richard Johnston, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of British Columbia.

Another facet of B.C.'s snap election that should change electoral politics forever is moving the traditional Tuesday voting to the weekend, said Dr. Johnston, a past Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections and Representation.

“I don’t think there’s any reason any longer not to have elections on the weekend,” he said, adding European countries have long done so.

During his news conference, Mr. Boegman could not say whether he expects mail-in voting to remain popular in future elections. He also did not weigh in on whether general voting days will be Saturdays from now on.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Thursday that there have been no COVID-19 cases linked to any campaign-related activities, despite a continuing rise in the daily number of new infections in the province over the monthlong campaign.

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Officials will need to maintain an open dialogue with the public and provide regular updates as they count, according to Heidi Tworek, an associate professor at UBC’s school of public policy and global affairs. B.C.'s embrace of mail-in voting is, in part, thanks to most people’s faith in the integrity of the electoral system, she added.

That stands in stark contrast with the United States, where President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the integrity of mail-in ballots during the presidential election campaign and the new head of the Postal Service is facing a conflict-of-interest investigation because he has donated millions of dollars to Republican lawmakers.

Crucially in B.C., Dr. Tworek said, political leaders of all stripes are helping by tacitly signalling their approval of the democratic process.

“For all the many ways in which people criticize [each other], we are seeing none of them undermine or attempt to undermine the integrity of the election,” she said. “The ability of leaders to play within the world of free and fair elections is obviously tremendously important for helping voters themselves – regardless of which party they vote for – understand why it might be that it takes a little it longer.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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