British Columbians should learn by the end of this month if the HST stays or goes, Elections BC says.

"I hope to be able to announce the [referendum] results on or about August the 25th," acting Chief Electoral Officer Craig James said Thursday.

But James still can't nail a date down with certainty.

"That's predicated on the volume or the rate of return and to the extent possible we are working toward that [Aug. 25] target," he said.

Voters have until 4:30 p.m. PT Friday to cast their referendum ballots and get them into the hands of Elections BC.

Mail option risky

Just having a ballot postmarked in the mail isn't enough to have it counted, according to Assistant Chief Electoral Officer Anton Boegman.

The provincial agency has five collection centres in the Lower Mainland, and ballots also can be dropped off at 60 B.C. government service centres around the province.

"So a voter can go up to a Service BC Centre in Golden and drop their ballot package off at 4:29:59 and it would be considered accepted," said Boegman.

Voters in the Lower Mainland may still have a chance to drop their ballots in the mail. But they have to hope the package gets to the main terminal in downtown Vancouver in time for pick-up by Elections BC at 4:30.

Major repercussions

The result of the binding HST referendum will have major political repercussions, no matter which way it goes.

If voters opt to keep the tax, it could be seen as a victory for the ruling B.C. Liberals, despite prompting an 18-month storm of controversy after they announced the 12-per-cent levy in June 2009.

The uproar ultimately led to the resignation of premier Gordon Campbell last November.

If the HST is rejected, the province must revert to the former system in which a seven-per-cent provincial sales tax and the five-per-cent GST are applied to most purchases and services.

There also will be questions about repayment of the $1.6 billion the federal government transferred to B.C. in exchange for introducing the HST.

With files from the CBC's Jeff Davies