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Elections BC officials complete counts for 16 of the province’s 87 ridings, with no seats yet changing hands.Wendy D

Roughly a third of the 179,000 absentee ballots cast in British Columbia's May 9 election have been counted and the race to govern the province has not changed, though the incumbent Liberals' share of the overall popular vote fell slightly to almost a dead heat with their rival New Democrats.

On Monday, Elections BC officials completed counts for 16 of the province's 87 ridings, with no seats changing hands, but the NDP was just half a percentage point lower than the Liberals in terms of overall votes cast, according to a 5 p.m. update from the electoral body.

Officials will continue counting absentee ballots Tuesday for the remaining ridings, including two hotly contested ones where official recounts were held Monday: Courtenay-Comox and Vancouver-False Creek.

Explainer: What you need to know about the final election count in B.C.

Read more: Elections BC looking into mysterious attack ads in Richmond

After the official recount in Courtenay-Comox, the NDP widened its lead in that riding to 13 votes from the nine tallied on election night.

But 2,077 absentee ballots are still being counted and officials said it could be Wednesday before they have a result for that riding – which would give the Liberals the 44 seats needed to form a majority government if it flips.

Even then, the election results might not be finalized.

If the margin of victory is one-500th of the total votes cast – that usually works out to between 40 and 60 votes per riding – then judicial recounts are automatic.

As well, candidates will have a week to apply for a judicial recount, which is overseen by a B.C. Supreme Court judge if they can demonstrate problems with the voting process.

In Vancouver-False Creek, where another recount was finished Monday, former mayor and Liberal incumbent Sam Sullivan increased his lead over the NDP's Morgane Oger by nine votes to 569, but officials are still counting more than 2,800 absentee ballots.

Absentee ballots have the potential to flip one or two seats after the final votes are counted, but traditionally have little effect on the makeup of the government.

Now, if even one or two ridings switch parties, particularly if the Liberals secure 44 seats, the outcome will change drastically. That would give the party a bare majority – a precarious scenario in which the Liberals would be able to pass legislation and survive confidence motions but only if every single member of caucus shows up to vote.

Likewise, if the NDP was to pick up an additional seat, the party's pitch to the Greens that the Liberals should not be given a chance to govern could carry more weight.

(The BC Green Party won a crucial three seats.)

The Liberals were unavailable for comment late Monday, but the BC NDP appeared confident with the narrowing of their rival's lead in the overall proportion of votes cast.

"We're pleased with the recount in Courtenay-Comox so far and we're optimistic about our chances as the count continues," Raj Sihota, the provincial director for the BC NDP, said in an e-mailed statement.

With a report from James Keller

Columnist Gary Mason says British Columbia is now a divided province, with the Liberals finding support in the interior and north, while the NDP dominates in Metro Vancouver. But the latter region is growing while the interior remains stagnant, leaving a question over the Liberals' future election prospects.

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