Canadians might go to bed Monday night without knowing the final results of the federal election. They might not even know who won by Tuesday morning.
That's because this year, Elections Canada isn't counting hundreds of thousands of local special ballots — votes from Canadians living in their ridings who opted to vote by mail — until Tuesday.
"The returning office has to go through a set of verifications before they even open a ballot envelope to put it in the box," said Elections Canada spokesperson Diane Benson.
Those verifications include making sure those who voted by mail did not also vote in-person on election day.
"Only after that will those ballots be counted," said Benson. "So it could be Wednesday, Thursday, Friday … because it depends on the volume and it depends on how long it takes to do those verifications and then the count."
According to the agency's website, as of Friday Elections Canada had issued more than one million special ballot kits to voters living in Canada who plan to vote by mail or at an Elections Canada office from inside their riding. The number of special ballot kits issued is lower than Elections Canada initially estimated but far more than the 50,000 mail-in ballots in the 2019 election.
More than half of those local special ballots have been returned so far.
Elections Canada has said it anticipates that most Canadians who requested special ballots will vote by mail.
"So those verifications will start on the Tuesday, they could take up to 24 hours. It's going to depend how many local electors use the special ballot kit," Benson said.
Demand for special ballots varies widely between ridings. In Nunavut, for example, just a few hundred people requested them, while in Victoria, a few thousand voters asked for special ballots.
The special ballots could be enough to change the outcome in tight local races. One of the closest races in the country during the 2019 federal election was in Port Moody-Coquitlam, where only 153 votes separated the Conservative and NDP candidates.
News networks might still be comfortable with projecting a winner Monday night if the results are clear enough. On the other hand, Canadians could wake up Tuesday morning not knowing which party is in line to form the next government.
"Canadians expect that they're going to know on election night, and we have to make it clear that Elections Canada just tallies up the results and puts them out," said Benson.
"We put the preliminary results up there on the website and have it available to media as the results roll in on election night."
Tight races make for difficult calls
According to CBC's Poll Tracker, the Liberals and Conservatives are effectively tied in national support, with a small edge given to the Liberals. Justin Trudeau's party is favoured to win the most seats and has roughly a three-in-five chance of being re-elected with a minority government.
Richard Johnston, a professor emeritus of political science at UBC in Vancouver, said those outstanding mail-in votes could make some close ridings impossible to call on Monday night.
"It really comes down to whether the margins in most ridings, between the first and second place candidate, are large enough that with a kind of back-of-the envelope model, the votes likely to be cast for the various parties the next day don't overturn the results," he said.
"So … the networks, presumably, if they know what they're doing, are going to be trying to build this into their models for reporting of results."
But if the results aren't as tight as polls suggest, Johnston said a clear result could emerge Monday.
"And so B.C. may be important or not, and that depends on how things break out, particularly in Ontario," he said.
"Maybe there's some phenomenon lurking in these data we're not seeing, and that actually it will be at least a decisive result in seats, which it could be.
"But I would say, if you're asking me to put money down, I'd probably put it on a Liberal plurality, but not a result that we would know necessarily until sometime Tuesday and it could be beyond Tuesday."
How the counting will work Monday
Under the law, Elections Canada can start counting some special ballots — those from Canadians voting abroad, Canadian Armed forces members and the incarcerated — up to 14 days before election day.
Elections Canada said Friday it sent 55,697 special ballot kits to those living abroad and that by Friday, 19,693 had been returned.
Those ballots are counted in Ottawa in a secure facility.
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"It's done with separate shifts so that nobody sees a pattern of how these votes are coming in," said Benson.
Those ballots generate some of the earliest results Canadians see on election night.
Returning officers also can start counting ballots cast at local advance polls one hour before polls close in their ridings on election night.
This year, nearly 5.8 million Canadians voted over the four days of advance polling that ended on Monday — a record, according to Elections Canada.
Elections Canada staff will start to count regular ballots cast on Monday after polls close that day.
"We have to recognize that the people who are working in the returning office and at the polls on Monday night, they're on the go, they work 12 and 14 hour days in the returning offices," said Benson.
"So when it gets to be 2 or 3 in the morning, you're needing to kind of say, 'Let's come in tomorrow, let's get some sleep and have fresh eyes.' Because that's when math mistakes happen."
As usual, Elections Canada has several days to validate and finalize the results.
Preparation key, says B.C.
Andrew Watson, spokesperson for Elections B.C., knows a bit about what Elections Canada is about to go through.
An unprecedented 596,287 voters cast their ballots by mail in the province's 2020 election, a vast increase over the 6,517 voters who voted by mail in 2017.
Watson said the main lesson his agency learned is to prepare for high volume.
"We did have to adjust how we approached that final count process. We added a lot more counting staff to make sure we could meet the demand of that volume. So we actually had dedicated teams who were focused on counting mail-in ballots," he said.
In that election, news outlets were able to project a majority NDP government well before Elections B.C. had finalized its count.
"From our perspective, as the administrators and under the legislation, a winner isn't actually declared until the final count is complete. Obviously, media make their calls based on the information available on election night," Watson said.
"Our goal and our focus was to count those ballots and report the results as quickly as possible. But we also had to make sure that we were following all of the necessary checks and balances to ensure … a secure [election] and an election with integrity."
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