Half of ballots may be cast already for Saturday's provincial election

B.C.’s election day is on Saturday, but half the ballots may have been cast already.

Nearly 800,000 ballots had been received by Elections B.C. as of late Monday through in-person voting at advance polls and mail-in votes. More mail-in ballots are in transit ­ in the postal system and waiting to be collected from dropboxes.

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In the last provincial election in 2017, about two million votes were cast, which was a turnout of about 60%.

About 40 per cent of the approximate 725,000 mail-in ballots requested by voters for this election have been returned for counting, Elections B.C. said Tuesday. It had received about 304,500 vote-by-mail packages up to just before midnight Monday.

“At this stage it seems like requests have peaked at around 725,000,” said spokesman Andrew Watson. Requests for mail voting surged because of concerns over pandemic safety. In the 2017 election, just over 11,000 people requested mail-in ballots and 6,500 were returned.

As of Monday, 472,354 people had cast votes at advance polls. The last day to vote at advance polls is today.

There are 3,485,858 people registered to vote in this provincial election.

Final results are expected to be delayed at least several weeks as mail-in ballots undergo a screening process and then are manually counted.

Online and phone requests for mail-in packages ended on Oct. 17.

Voters still have until 4 p.m. on Saturday to request a mail-in package directly from a district electoral office for drop off before 8 p.m. on the day of the general election “but that’s usually only used by voters who maybe can’t leave their residence for whatever reason,” said Watson, “and a family member picks it up for them.”

Although the deadline has passed to send vote-by-mail packages through the postal system, voters still have until 8 p.m. when polls close on Saturday to drop off mail-in packages at a district electoral office, a voting place and some Service B.C. locations.

Voters can also forgo the mail-in option, destroy the package, and vote in person instead. A voter can only cast one vote.

Canada Post will be delivering ballots until the close of voting Saturday.

“We will have election officials at their mail processing facility in Richmond to receive all of the ballots that are there as of 8 p.m. Pacific standard time on Oct. 24,” said Watson. Mail-in ballots received after this date and time will be set aside, unopened.

Elections B.C. had originally estimated it would receive requests for about 800,000 mail-in ballots, as indicated by voter surveys, but “we never had an estimate in terms of returns,” said Watson, noting voting preferences have changed greatly over time.

In recent elections, 90 per cent of ballots were cast in person on the day of the election but last time that dropped to 60 per cent, with 30 per cent opting for advance polls, and 10 per cent using some form of absentee ballots.

Elections B.C. chief electoral officer Anton Boegman has said official elections results are not typically declared until a minimum 17 days after voting day and if there are more absentee ballots — which includes mail-in ballots — it will be “significantly” longer.

“I don’t know how much longer it will be,” said Boegman, at a media briefing last month. “The act contemplates a minimum 13-day period to get ready and then there’s a three-day period for the final count to take place. So, that is what it was in 2017, in 2013, 2009, and 2005.”

In 2017 there were also a number of ridings where the number of absentee ballots to be counted was greater than the margin between the top two candidates.

Elections B.C. has a staff of just under 100 that swells up to as many as 25,000 during elections.

There is a count on election night of votes cast on election day and votes cast in advance polls, considered “live” ballots.

B.C.’s Elections Act stipulates that the final count of absentee ballots must not take place until 13 days after the election.

The system for screening and counting mail-in ballots was designed in the late 1990s to accommodate tens of thousands of ballots and with efficiencies introduced along the way has been able to accommodate up to 200,000 mail-in ballots over a two-week period.

“Our commitment is to make sure that the count is conducted as quickly as possible while maintaining the necessary integrity checks,” said Boegman.

Voters who have received their mail-in packages with the enclosed return envelopes sealed due to possible moisture or heat problems during transit have been advised to carefully open the envelopes and tape them shut before handing them in.

A list of ballot drop-off locations can be found elections.bc.ca/voting/how-to-vote-by-mail.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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