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b.c. election 2017

This week, Elections BC will count more than 170,000 absentee ballots, which could reshape the result of the provincial election.

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

Nearly 180,000 absentee ballots will be added to the results of B.C.'s extremely close provincial election and there will be recounts in two ridings. The result could have a dramatic impact on what happens next

Elections officials across British Columbia are counting approximately 179,000 absentee ballots that have not yet been added to the results from the May 9 vote. The final count of election ballots has changed races before – and if it does again, it could reshape the results of an election that has already been clouded by uncertainty over a potential minority legislature.

Read more: Absentee ballot count begins in B.C.

Read more: Absentee ballots could swing B.C. election

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Read more: Lieutenant-Governor could force new election if Clark loses confidence motion

Here's what you need to know about the process and what it could mean.

Counting ballots

While most of the attention on election night is focused on watching results roll in, the ballots cast for the provincial election are actually counted in two phases. On May 9, officials counted 1.8-million ballots that had either been cast in person that day or in advance polls.

But any votes cast outside a voter's home riding, by mail, or in other special circumstances – such as a voting area set up at a residential care facility – aren't tallied until the final count. Provincial law says that can't begin until the 13th day after the election, in part to allow ballots to be physically transported to each voter's home district. That process began on Monday and is expected to finish by Wednesday.

This procedure takes place every election, usually without much fanfare, though the extremely narrow result on May 9 has meant the absentee ballots could be a deciding factor.

The initial count

Party Popular vote Seats
Liberal 40.86% 43
NDP 39.85% 41
Green 16.74% 3

When all of the ballots were counted on election night, the Liberals were slightly ahead in the popular vote and winning in 43 of the province's 87 ridings – one short of a majority. But there were several close races, most notably the Vancouver Island riding of Courtenay-Comox, where the NDP finished the night with just nine more votes than the Liberals. That means even a small change in the breakdown of the absentee ballots could flip that riding to the Liberals – and return the governing party to a majority.

At the end of the day on Monday, absentee ballots had been counted in 16 ridings, all of which were unchanged from election night. The final count had yet to be complete in Courtenay-Comox.

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There were also full recounts on Monday in two ridings. In Courtenay-Comox, the recount was essentially automatic because the margin of victory was less than 100 votes. A candidate in the riding of Vancouver-False Creek, where the Liberals won by a margin of 560 votes, successfully applied for a recount due to a discrepancy in the number of advance ballots.

Both recounts confirmed the election day results. In Courtenay-Comox, New Democrat Ronna Rae Leonard now leads by 13 votes, slightly higher than the nine-vote lead she had on May 9.

In addition, the Liberals and NDP applied for recounts in three other close ridings, but Elections BC rejected those requests. Aside from a margin of less than 100 votes, candidates can only ask for recounts if they can demonstrate there were problems with how the votes were tallied. The parties did not disclose what errors they alleged occurred.

Even after the final count, the process might not be finished. 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 process. Judicial recounts are automatic in ridings where the margin of victory is 1/500th of the total votes cast – that usually works out to between 40 and 60 votes.

Deciding votes

Absentee ballots and recounts have changed the results of local races in each of the past two elections.

In 2013, the Liberals were leading in the riding of Coquitlam-Maillardville, east of Vancouver, by just over 100 votes on election day, but when absentee ballots were added into the mix, the NDP's Selina Robinson was ahead by 35 votes. That triggered a judicial recount, which declared Ms. Robinson the winner.

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There were two examples in 2009. The New Democrats initially appeared to win the riding of Cariboo-Chilcotin in B.C.'s northern Interior, but after a recount and the addition of absentee ballots, the Liberal candidate emerged as the winner. In Delta South, near Vancouver, then-cabinet-minister Wally Oppal ended election night with a two-vote lead over Independent candidate Vicki Huntington. The inevitable recount and absentee ballots made Ms. Huntington the final winner by a margin of 32 votes.

A Globe and Mail analysis of the 2013 election results found absentee ballots changed the margin separating the winner and second-place candidates by an average of about 340 votes, up or down; the largest change was in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, where New Democrat Jenny Kwan's already comfortable 8,649-vote lead widened by 1,254. Not including Coquitlam-Maillardville, winning candidates saw their leads widened in 74 ridings, compared with 10 where the races became more narrow.

Still, in most cases, the absentee ballots had a minimal affect on each candidate's percentage of the popular vote, in large part because the breakdown of absentee ballots mirrored the overall results. The winner's share of the popular vote never changed by more than one percentage point, making the absentee ballots an insignificant factor in all but the slimmest of races.

A minority legislature (or not)

The province has been bracing for a minority legislature with the Green Party holding the balance of power, prompting the Liberals and the New Democrats to court the third-place party for support. That reality has given the Greens and Leader Andrew Weaver tremendous power in deciding which party will form government, as well as what promises they can extract in exchange.

However, that could all change if even one or two ridings switch parties, particularly if the Liberals secure 44 seats. 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 were 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.

Whatever happens, the Liberals are preparing to recall the legislature as early as next month to table a new budget. If the Liberals don't win a majority this week and haven't brought the Greens on side by then, the government would fall.


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