Canada

Record number of mail-in ballot requests means ‘very likely’ vote result won’t be known election night

This year, the one million local mail-in ballots won’t be counted until Tuesday morning at the earliest, says an Elections Canada spokesperson

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OTTAWA – A record 1.2 million Canadians have requested a mail-in ballot this federal election, setting the stage for a potentially inconclusive night after polls close Monday.

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“It’s very likely that we won’t know who the winner is on election night,” Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier said in an interview.

That’s because due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over one million Canadians have exceptionally requested a mail-in voting kit from inside their riding, meaning they will submit their ballot from their place of residence.

That is in addition to nearly 150,000 Canadians voting from within the country but from outside their riding (such as someone voting by mail from Toronto though they reside in Montreal) and 54,000 citizens voting from outside of Canada.

But unlike previous elections where most mail-in ballots are counted on voting day, this year, those one million local mail-in ballots won’t be counted until Tuesday morning at the very earliest, says Gauthier.

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That’s because mail-in ballots ordered from within a riding in Canada are treated differently from ballots sent from outside the country, by a member of the Canadian Armed Forces or an inmate in a penitentiary (which are counted on polling day).

They require verification that can take up to 24 hours to ensure that a voter didn’t — intentionally or not — vote both by mail and in-person in their riding, Gauthier explained.

“If you live in Poland and you’re voting, we know you haven’t voted in person. It’s impossible,” Gauthier said. “If you’re voting by mail in your riding, they want to make sure that some error didn’t happen, and the person didn’t also vote in person, which is something that could potentially happen.”

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Canadians voting by mail have until the minute their local riding polls close on Sept. 20 to get their envelope to Elections Canada, which means that the total number of eligible mail-in ballots is still unknown. But as of Wednesday night, over half of all voting kits had already been returned (though their eligibility has not yet been confirmed).

According to Elections Canada data, seven out of 10 and nearly half (23) of the 50 ridings in which the most mail-in voting kits issued to electors are in British Columbia. Most of the rest of the top 50 (20) were in Ontario.

The most voting kits were issued in the ridings of Victoria (12,294), Saanich-Gulf Islands (10,457) and Ottawa Centre (9,655).

There are two potential reasons why B.C. residents were so much more likely to want to vote by mail.

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The first may be due to political allegiance. A Leger poll this week shows that people who intend to vote NDP — much of the party’s support and caucus is in B.C. — are the most likely to want to vote by mail (10 per cent), if they haven’t done so already (8 per cent).

The second could have something to do with the fact that B.C. residents have experience with voting by mail during the pandemic.

Last year’s provincial election drew nearly 600,000 mail-in ballots, a nearly 100-fold increase from the previous provincial election, according to the provincial election agency.

Those ballots represented nearly a third of all ballots cast, with another third of British Columbians voting at advance polls. At 28.8 per cent of ballots cast, voting on election day was actually the least popular approach for voters in the B.C. election.

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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one million Canadians have exceptionally requested a mail-in voting kit from inside their riding.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one million Canadians have exceptionally requested a mail-in voting kit from inside their riding. Photo by Postmedia illustration

Heather Stoutenburg, director of the B.C. NDP said the mail-in ballots were definitely a major part of the campaign, including a need to educate voters from the beginning.

“Filling out the ballot correctly was something that we spent a lot of time and effort and energy on to make sure that folks were aware of how they do that in a way that would make sure that their vote was counted and heard,” she said.

Mail-in ballots don’t include a list of names, but require the voter to write in the name of the candidate they’re supporting, which Stoutenburg said is the kind of detail that had to be communicated.

She said the COVID campaign poised all kinds of challenges and recruiting volunteers was one of them. That was only magnified when the mail in ballot delayed counting and official results, she added.

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“All of a sudden we needed to keep those volunteers, long after the election to go do things like scrutineering ballots and participating and recount so yeah it was it was definitely a challenge,” she said.

Even before the 2020 vote, B.C.’s 2018 referendum on electoral reform was conducted via mail-in ballot.

Stoutenburg said she is not surprised British Columbians have really embraced it in the federal election.

“British Columbians saw that this was a safe and effective and easy way to vote and I think you will see that trend continuing.”

A senior B.C Liberal who spoke on background, said the mail-in ballots were in some ways an opportunity, because it meant campaigns could lock in early support.

“As soon as that confirmed supporter has voted, in this case by mail; one they can’t change their mind for somebody else and two you can stop worrying about them and move on,” they said.

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B.C.’s election came amid a growing second wave of COVID cases and without widely available vaccines. The source said they suspect people will be less nervous in this campaign of casting a vote in person.

Elections Canada had predicted as many as five million voters might vote by mail, but the ballot requests came in much lower.

On election night last year, it was clear B.C. would have a majority NDP government, but many ridings took weeks to declare a winner, as the mail-in ballots were counted.

The senior Liberal said one of the challenges is that campaign workers can’t just stop working after the polls close.

“Candidates, the staff who have been in overdrive for over a month now have to stay focused on the final stage of the election for a little bit longer.”

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There’s a small potential silver lining for angsty campaign strategists (and newspaper front page editors) who hope that a clear winner will emerge on Monday evening.

A National Post analysis shows that only five of the 50 ridings in which the most mail-in ballots were requested were decided by less than a five per cent margin in the 2019 election. That means that many races could be decided without the need to count every voting kit issued by mail.

Four of them are in British Columbia (Victoria, South Okanagan-West Kootenay, Port Moody-Coquitlam, Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam and South Surrey-White Rock) and one of them is in Ontario (Bay of Quinte).

Of course, past electoral results do not guarantee future performance, but many pollsters have noted that current data shows that voting trends are very similar this election compared to 2019, with one major caveat: the crumbling of the Green Party. The Greens will likely be far less of a factor in B.C. this year, putting the NDP far ahead in Victoria for example, according to polling aggregator 338Canada.

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From now until the bitter end of Election 44, the National Post is publishing a special daily edition of First Reading, our politics newsletter, to keep you posted on the ins and outs (and way outs) of the campaign. All curated by the National Post’s own Tristin Hopper and published Monday to Friday at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 9 a.m. Sign up here.

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