Mail-in ballots mean 'definitive calls' difficult on election night

Mail-in ballots could become a “much bigger feature” of future elections, according to an elections expert, as hundreds of thousands of British Columbians have already opted to vote-by-mail rather than stand in line at the polls on Oct. 24.

“I think the story in the long run, is that (mail-in voting) is so convenient,” said Richard Johnston, professor emeritus with UBC’s political science department.

“Whether (in the future) it’s at the exact level we’re seeing this year, who knows.”

Elections BC previously estimated that up to 800,000 people could vote by mail this election. As of Friday, the electoral body has received about 646,000 requests for vote-by-mail packages, up from 11,000 in 2017.

B.C.’s surge in mail-in ballot requests echoes what was seen in New Brunswick last month — the first Canadian province to hold a pandemic election. There, about 17 per cent of voters cast their ballots by mail — an option typically utilized by less than one per cent of voters.

Voters in B.C. have been increasingly taking advantage of “voting options that they find convenient,” said Andrew Watson, communications director for Elections BC. 

“In the past several elections, we’ve seen a big increase in turnout at advanced and…absentee forms of voting,” he added.

Due to processes rooted in legislation, it will take at least a couple of weeks before all of the mail-in ballots are counted, Watson said, and Elections BC will be receiving mail-in packages right up until the polls close.

Increasingly, said Johnston, the number of ballots that needs to be counted on or after election day is large enough that it will be “harder to make definitive calls on ridings,” particularly in a close election.

“So, it’s going to change the coverage of elections and the speed with which, say, a turnover in government takes place.”

A greater shift towards voting by mail could also have an effect on campaigning, said Johnston, in the sense that a much larger percentage of the electorate will have already decided who to vote for.

“So, there’s going to be a change in the nature of campaigning, and in particular the mobilization of the base,” he said. “The base can be mobilized quite early, and in a sense, locked up.”

Johnston explained that it could change the way the late campaign unfolds — when parties historically ramp up their campaigning targeting undecided voters.

Voters could also end up paying attention to politics earlier in the campaign — at least until they get their voter materials and cast their ballot.

But even without mail balloting, campaigning has already become more permanent, Johnston added, as Canada and the provinces have moved towards “quasi-fixed election dates.”

However, the ease of mail-in voting doesn’t mean B.C. will see a greater voter turnout, said Johnston.

In New Brunswick, for example, the 2020 turnout was on par – at 66 per cent – with the 2018 election.

According to Johnston, there hasn’t been any evidence to suggest the facilitation of early voting has increased overall voter turnout. Instead, voter turnout has gone up as a result of the “stakes” being higher – for example, the U.S. presidential elections.

In the B.C. context, he said, people who vote early had to request their ballot, meaning they’ve already crossed the first threshold in voting – and are likely people who would have turned out to vote anyways. 

One of the questions B.C. needs to pay attention to this election, said Johnston, is how many ballots are rejected.

Election candidates were only finalized last week. Prior to that, voters who requested a mail-in ballot received a blank one.

“One of the oddities of the current situation is that Premier Horgan misspoke about how you would express your preference. He said you could right his name down, regardless of constituency,” said Johnston.

“How many people have gotten that message?”

According to Watson, with Elections BC, the “key reminder” is that voters are voting for their local MLA, who will be representing their electoral district in the legislature.

That means voters need to write down either the name of a candidate or party running in their riding.

“We’ll see how closely voters follow the instructions that were actually written on the ballot,” said Johnston.

“That, to me, would be the one question that hangs over… How much variance, how much dispute will there be over the clarity of intent?”

Elections BC currently doesn’t have a count of how many mail-in ballots have already been returned, said Watson, although that information should be forthcoming in the next week or so.

He added that misspellings won’t be grounds for rejection, as long as the intent of the voter is clear.


© New West Record

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