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BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark waves to the crowd following the BC Liberal election in Vancouver, B.C., on May 10, 2017.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Elections BC starts counting almost 180,000 absentee ballots Monday, an exercise that traditionally makes a difference in the final vote count but has never had the potential to hand government to one party in the province.

This time, it could.

The BC Liberals would win a fifth-consecutive majority if the thousand or more absentee votes end up changing the NDP's nine-vote lead in the Vancouver Island riding of Courtenay-Comox. On election night, New Democrat Ronna-Rae Leonard won with 37.15 per cent of the vote, just .04 per cent more than her Liberal rival, Jim Benninger. Ernie Sellentin of the Greens picked up 18.13 per cent of the vote, while Leah McCulloch of the Conservatives – who said a minority government was the exact outcome she had hoped for – had 7.61 per cent.

"They have certainly flipped a few seats, but no election has been this close," said Richard Johnston, a political-science professor at the University of British Columbia and Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation.

"In this case, no flips would be as big news as any, as it freezes a minority result, which is all but unprecedented."

In the past provincial election, much of what is now Courtenay-Comox was known as Comox Valley and the roughly 3,500 absentee, mail-in and special ballots were almost evenly split between the two major parties, which led to the Liberals keeping their sizable lead and winning the riding.

That split among absentee votes mirrored the trend in the wider election, with the Liberals and New Democrats both garnering about 40 per cent of these ballots, while the Greens got a slight bump from this group of votes.

On average in 2013, the absentee ballots changed the margin of victory by about 344 votes, plus or minus. In 74 ridings, the final count ended up widening the winner's lead, while in 10 ridings, the absentee ballots narrowed the race.

The riding where the margin changed the most was Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, where the New Democrats widened their lead by 1,254 votes to soundly beat their rival. There are a handful of ridings in this election where a candidate won by a margin smaller than that, but Elections BC has not released how many absentee ballots are set to be counted in each riding.

For example, in Vancouver-False Creek, Liberal incumbent Sam Sullivan was elected by 560 votes ahead of New Democrat Morgane Oger.

But, proportionally, absentee ballots tend to only increase a winning margin significantly where the winner already had a very large lead. Even in relatively close races of 100 to 200 votes, absentee ballots rarely flip the end result because they generally mirror the same trends as the overall vote in the riding.

In 2013, one riding did change hands after absentee votes were counted two weeks later.

New Democrat Selina Robinson remembers being devastated as she found out on election night that she had lost Coquitlam-Maillardville to her Liberal rival, Steve Kim, by a mere 105 votes. The margin was too close to concede defeat before waiting two weeks for the absentee ballots to be counted, but Ms. Robinson said she accepted that a jump from local city council to provincial politics was not in the cards.

"I had a pity party for 18 hours, I sat in bed ate potato chips and ice cream and all that stuff and then went back to work," Ms. Robinson recalled last week.

Two Mondays after the election, as electoral officers around the province began counting the absentee ballots, she remembers a midday text from her campaign manager interrupting her at council to tell her she was now up by nine votes. At 4 p.m. she was declared the winner by a margin of 35 votes. (The result was tight enough to trigger a judicial recount, but Ms. Robinson won the riding by an eventual 41 votes.)

"I remember excusing myself from the meeting, not saying a word to anyone," she said of the shocking result. "I had everyone convinced that I had lost, so I thought 'I need to call my family first to tell them before it goes to media.'"

"It was out on social media before I finished calling my dad."

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.