British Columbia

What comes next? A primer on how the B.C. election will be decided

Voters in B.C. could be waiting as long as two weeks for a final tally of ballots after an extremely tight race ended with Christy Clark's Liberals holding onto power — for now.

Absentee ballots and judicial recounts to decide whether province ends up in minority or majority situation

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver watching the poll results come. His party could play a role in the next government after a tight race ended with a Liberal minority win. (Michael Mcarthur/CBC)

Elections BC says it could be a long while until the final results of the 2017 provincial election, which ended with the Liberals one seat short of a majority, will be known. 

"The results that we've reported tonight are the preliminary results from general voting," said Andrew Watson, Election BC's communication manager, at the end of a historic night. 

"It doesn't include absentee ballots, include voters who voted by mail, voters who voted in a district office, voters who voted outside their electoral district during advanced voting, and voters who voted today, but not at their assigned voting place."

That's important, because the Liberals lost the riding of Courtenay-Comox by just nine votes, and need just one extra seat to reach 44, enough to form a fifth straight majority government.

The absentee votes for all ridings will be tabulated between May 22 and 24, and the final count will be released sometime during that period. In 2013, there were approximately 159,000 valid absentee ballots cast across B.C.

"The final election results are reported after the conclusion of final count," said Watson.  

How might that final count play out?

Elections BC doesn't know yet how many absentee votes are to be counted in Courtenay-Comox, where NDP candidate Ronna-Rae Leonard has been declared winner — by a very narrow margin.

There were 1,856 of them in Comox Valley in 2013, when the NDP received 780 to 712 for the Liberals.

However, this time the Liberal candidate is Jim Benninger, the former Base Commander of CFB Comox. It stands to reason that many of those absentee votes will come from Benninger's former co-workers who were on assignment during the campaign. 

Judicial recounts

But even the final count, with absentee ballots included, may not mean the end of the election. If the results in a given riding are within 0.2 per cent, a recount is automatically triggered. 

That's because there could easily be recounts in Courtenay-Comox — but also in Maple Ridge Mission, where the NDP are ahead by 120 votes, or Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, where the Liberals are ahead by 170.

"It's possible for a recount of ballots considered at initial count. That can be a full or partial recount. Candidates and official agents can request for that to happen," said Watson, who added that any requests needed to happen within three days of general voting days. 

"For a judicial recount, it needs to be recounted after final count, where the difference between the first two candidates is less than 1/500th between the total ballots considered." 

And that could take several more days.

Political negotiations

While all of this is going on, B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark and NDP Leader John Horgan will negotiate with Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver on possible power-sharing scenarios. 

In fact, they already have. 

"At this stage, we don't want to comment on anything. There's going to be a lot of decisions to come in the days and weeks ahead," said Matt Toner, the deputy Green Party leader, on Tuesday night.

In fact, Green Party sources said Weaver had short and cordial conversations with both Clark and Horgan after a minority situation appeared likely, and told he'd be willing to work with them — though Weaver has said that the one issue anyone would have to agree to would be the abolition of corporate and union donations.

"Without any question. That's a deal breaker. We've got to get this money out of politics," said Weaver last week.

UBC political scientist Max Cameron said democracies across the world have managed to create stable governing situations out of unstable seat distributions.

"Minority governments can work, it puts leaders to the test, but that's what we elected them to do. If [you] can't form a co-operative arrangement with a party of three MLAs, then maybe you should find another line of work," he said, adding that Weaver would likely take his time in figuring out any arrangement going forward.

"Taking the time to work out a framework for co-operation that is solid makes for more durable governments."

It may be moot if the Liberals ultimately prevail in Courtenay-Comox. But if not, British Columbia could be set for the most interesting set of political negotiations the province has seen in modern times. 

"This is a hell of a day for the province of B.C.," said Toner as the preliminary results became clear.

"It's going to be a very interesting situation for everyone, starting tomorrow."