Canada

Low voter turnout in B.C. pandemic election likely a 'blip,' say experts

However, more voters may continue the trend of casting their ballots in advance or by mail, according to University of B.C. experts.

COQUITLAM, BC. precautions in place and procedure for voting in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.................(Photo credit: Francis Georgian / Postmedia) , Vancouver. VancouvrReporter: , ( Francis Georgian / PNG staff [PNG Merlin Archive]

B.C. saw its lowest voter turnout in almost a century, 52.4 per cent, for this month’s snap provincial election, but experts say that is likely not indicative of future voting trends in the province.

Elections B.C. said its turnout estimate includes ballots cast in seven days of advance voting and on election day, plus estimates of the number of absentee and mail-in ballots that were returned for consideration during the final count.

It will likely increase after there is a more accurate count of mail-in votes.

“I would think it’s a blip in terms of trends down the long run,” University of B.C. associate professor of political science Gerald Baier said of the turnout estimate. “I hope it is, anyway.”

Baier said even though Elections B.C. did the best it could to get out the vote, given that the election took place during the global COVID-19 pandemic, and candidates campaigned under very different circumstances, it’s possible many people did not get the cues they normally would to remind them that an election campaign was under way.

An estimated 85,000 certification envelopes containing absentee ballots will be considered for final count. These include votes cast outside of one’s electoral district, at a voting place other than one’s assigned location, or at a district electoral office.

As of Oct. 24, Elections B.C. had received about 525,000 mail-in ballots. That figure does not include ballots dropped off in person by 8 p.m. on election day.

As of Sept. 26, there were almost 3.5 million registered voters in B.C.

Kathryn Harrison, another UBC political science professor, said while she didn’t see this as the start of a downward trend in voter turnout in B.C., there could be some trends set for the ways people vote.

“I am struck that we may see that of the votes cast 30 per cent will come from mail-ins … and that a majority of those who voted in-person voted early. So, there may be some legacy effects of that increase in early voting, increased expectations of voting by mail.”

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Richard Johnston, a professor emeritus of political science at UBC, said the turnout could have to do with a lack of desire for an election. Premier John Horgan was heavily criticized for calling the election during a pandemic.

“At the end of the day, it’s an election nobody wanted,” Johnston said. “As far as the interpretation of the outcome is concerned, it’s basically a vote to continue having (provincial health officer) Bonnie Henry on at 3:30 (p.m. every day) — that’s what it’s about.”

Heidi Tworek, an associate professor in UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, cautioned against using the pandemic as an excuse for the low turnout. She pointed to South Korea, which saw its highest voter turnout in almost 30 years — 66.2 per cent — in its spring election. She said there are likely other reasons for the apathy.

Statistics from Elections B.C. going back to 1928 show the second-worst voter turnout was in the 2009 provincial election, which saw 55.1 per cent of registered voters show up. The turnout for the 2011 HST referendum, which was conducted by mail, was 52.7 per cent.

Elections B.C. said 670,324 voters voted in their electoral district during the advance voting period, and 546,877 voted on election day at their assigned voting place.

Absentee ballots, including mail-in votes, won’t be counted for at least 13 days following election day. Counting generally takes three days, but it could take longer because of the volume of mail-in ballots.

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