Expect long-delayed results from John Horgan’s snap election call

It is an election no one sought soon.

It is also an election no one settles soon.

October 24, the official vote date, is far from the finish line. Think nearly mid-November. Thank the pandemic and John Horgan, not necessarily in that order.

Before we know who are our members of the legislative assembly, perhaps even who forms government, a record number of mailed ballots will need to be tallied – later, much later. The mail-ins stand to be difference-makers, not their typical afterthought.

About 600,000 (and counting) British Columbians have requested a package to mail their votes to Elections BC. The likelihood of massive mail-in balloting creates a considerable complication to this controversial election call and likely confusion about the election-night result. 

They don’t call it snail mail for nothing: the mail-in counting will not start for 13 days after the in-person balloting to get the paper to the right riding and ensure people haven’t voted twice. This exponentially larger cohort (there were only 6,000 mail-ins in 2017) could push Elections BC past its traditional announcement of final results 17 days after in-person voting.

If this election were a meal, it would be more sous vide than fast food.

To look at the implications, we need to make a couple of assumptions and accept a couple of imponderables.

The assumptions:

1) Some won’t use the mail-in ballots – they ordered them as a safety net if they choose not to vote in person – but it’s bound to be a hefty legion. Mail-outs will increase by October  24, to estimates of 800,000 or about 40% of the voter turnout of 1.97 million last election.

2) Voter turnout might be lower this time, because 2017 was a conventional campaign of door-knocking, street-standing, hand-shaking candidates, with a traditional apparatus of volunteers to assist. It is harder to identify your vote and get it out in 2020, and the race is not seemingly tight yet or ignited by a ballot-box issue. Might the mail-in ballots be an even larger proportion of the votes because those who asked for them are among the more dedicated of the electorate?

The imponderables:

1) Who are ordering the mail-in ballots? Voters worried about the virus at the polling station? People who won’t want to be part of a slow-moving indoor lineup or a long line out the door in bad weather?

2) Where are the mail-in ballots going? In areas where the pandemic has been more pronounced? We don’t have any clue about which of the 87 ridings might have a large mail-in cohort, and we won’t know how many more votes will be due when the in-person results are brought forward October 24.

The implications:

1) By my count, 40 of the 87 ridings were decided by fewer than 4,000 votes last time, including 32 by fewer than 3,000. You’ve got an average of about 7,000 mail-in ballots per riding (although those numbers are likely larger and smaller in big and petite ridings). True, many ridings vote consistently for one party, but the combination of circumstances and the wild card of mail-in ballots could swing those ridings, and most make it impossible to declare a lot of victors October 24. After all, if you don’t know how many ballots are left to count in a close race, how can you call it?

2) Only 23 ridings in 2017 were landslide results of more than 6,000, but many of those featured high-profile candidates who aren’t running in 2020. Might those seats be more contested this time, and might the mail-ins be the decisive factor?

All in all, it will make for some awkward, “Thanks, I think I won” election night acceptance speeches. Even if the winning party weren’t in doubt, the government’s composition would be. Which means it will take longer to form cabinet and legislature roles and to engage into the duties and decision-making. MLAs will be MIA when most needed, which makes the election only the BC NDP wanted an even more sorrowful exercise.

Nestled in the minds in the NDP brain trust must have been a calculation that the combination of a rather quiet legislative summer and a caretaker government during the autumn campaign could also yield a break well into winter if they won. Few of us in the pandemic can claim such a financed respite. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.