05/11/2017 08:51 EDT | Updated 05/11/2017 08:53 EDT

B.C. Election: Absentee Ballots Could Change The Final Outcome

Absentee ballots have flipped seats before.

VANCOUVER — Jim Benninger knows that a lot of people think the difference between a Liberal majority or minority government in British Columbia is resting on his shoulders.

The Liberal candidate in Courtenay-Comox lost by nine votes after advance and general ballots were counted on Tuesday, leaving the party with one seat short of the 44 needed to mount their fifth straight majority government. But there's a twist: 176,000 absentee ballots will be counted in two weeks, and Benninger estimates about 1,500 of those are in his riding.

Benninger isn't feeling any pressure, however. After all, there's nothing he can do about it now.

B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark shares a laugh with local candidate Jim Benninger during a campaign stop in Courtney, B.C. on Monday. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/CP)

"It's like when you hand in an exam and they tell you you'll get your mark in two weeks,'' he said Thursday.

"I've got a couple weeks to catch up on things that I may not have been able to give the attention they deserved, including my family. ... I think I'm going to go home and read that book I got under the Christmas tree.''

The riding on east Vancouver Island is certainly the closest of the seats that could switch parties after absentee ballots are counted. But a handful of other ridings are also tight: Maple Ridge-Mission, where the NDP's Bob D'Eith won by 120 votes; Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, where Liberal Joan Isaacs won by 170 votes; and Richmond-Queensborough, where Liberal Jas Johal won by 263 votes.

At the end of the night Tuesday, Christy Clark's Liberals won 43 seats, compared with 41 for John Horgan's NDP and Andrew Weaver's Greens holding the balance of power with three seats. It all means absentee ballots will decide the outcome of B.C.'s election — and for the first time in memory, politicians and voters are anxiously awaiting the final count.

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan speaks during a post election news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/CP)

"This is the most exciting British Columbia election, certainly in modern history, maybe even in history,'' said David Moscrop, a University of British Columbia political scientist.

"It'll be a week and a bit after the election with six possible outcomes still hanging, two very different platforms and the arrival of the Greens holding the balance of power for the first time in North American history.''

Six possible outcomes

The six possible outcomes are: a Liberal majority; a Liberal minority; a NDP majority; a NDP minority; a Green-Liberal coalition or a Green-NDP coalition. Moscrop believes nothing should be ruled out yet.

The final count will take place between May 22 and 24 and includes votes cast by voters outside of their electoral district, in a district electoral office or by mail. This allows enough time for certification envelopes containing ballots to be sent from the district where they were cast to the district where voters are registered, explained Andrew Watson, a spokesman for Elections BC.

"We've seen close races before. In 2013, we had one judicial recount,'' said Watson, referring to Coquitlam-Maillardville, where the NDP's Selina Robinson won by 41 votes. "But certainly, in this election, there's a lot of focus on the absentee ballots.''

"This is the most exciting British Columbia election, certainly in modern history, maybe even in history."

Absentee ballots have flipped seats before. On election night in 2009, the NDP's Charlie Wyse was declared the winner in Cariboo-Chilcotin, before the final count declared Liberal Donna Barnett the winner. Also that year, preliminary results put Liberal Wally Oppal ahead by three votes in Delta South before the final count revealed Independent Vicki Huntington had won.

In Courtenay-Comox, there were about 3,500 absentee ballots cast in 2013 and they slightly favoured the NDP, tightening Liberal Don McRae's margin of victory by less than one percentage point. But the boundaries have changed since then and the riding no longer includes some NDP-leaning areas.

Benninger has requested a recount that will take place as part of the final count in two weeks. His opponent Ronna-Rae Leonard, the New Democrat who squeaked out a win on Tuesday, did not immediately return a request for comment.

B.C Liberal supporters react while watching the election results at the Liberal election party in Vancouver on Tuesday. (Photo: Ben Nelms/Reuters)

Much has been made of the fact that Courtenay-Comox includes CFB Comox, a military base where Benninger served as commander for three years and home to, presumably, a number of personnel who are out of the riding and need to file absentee ballots.

However, Benninger estimates that about 40 to 60 members are currently deployed and of those, probably only five to 10 voted.

"When you go away and you deploy for an extended period of time ... you want to make sure your family is set up for success while you're away. There's a lot of things to worry about to make sure that the separation goes as smoothly as possible. I'm pretty sure that voting is not near the top.''

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