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Who’s running B.C. now? The election and minority government explained

ELECTION

Who's running B.C. now? The election and minority government explained, and what happens next

B.C.'s election resulted in its first minority government since 1952, setting off weeks of recounts and negotiations that will ultimately determine who is able to govern and for how long. Megan Devlin and Andrea Woo explain what happens now

NDP Leader John Horgan and BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark.

What B.C. looked like Wednesday morning

  • Premier Christy Clark’s BC Liberals took 43 seats on Tuesday, with 41 for John Horgan’s NDP.
  • That leaves the Greens holding the balance of power with a breakthrough of three seats – the most the Green party has ever held provincially or federally.
  • Adding to the uncertainty are more than 170,000 absentee ballots, which won’t be counted for another two weeks and could still tip some of the closest races.
  • Ms. Clark says Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon has asked her to continue governing.
  • Ms. Clark says she hopes the absentee ballots will return her party to a majority.

W.A.C. Bennett, shown in 1962, was B.C.'s last premier to win a minority government. ERIK SCHACK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Minority government 101

When no one party has a majority of seats in the legislature, a minority government exists. In B.C., there are 87 legislative seats, so the Liberals needed 44 for a majority. They got 43, which is still a plurality of seats, and in minority situations, the party with a plurality is traditionally the first to be invited to form a government. But once in office, it needs the support of other parties to pass legislation, and without it, the government collapses.

B.C. has had three minority governments in its history. The last one was in 1952, when W.A.C. Bennett's Social Credit Party won. Mr. Bennett brought down his own government in 1953 in a confidence vote about school grants, winning a majority and governing as premier until 1972.

Sometimes, but rarely, parties in a minority parliament form coalition governments, in which a written agreement exists that usually involves some sharing of cabinet posts. B.C. hasn't had one of those since the 1940s, when the Liberals and Conservatives joined forces to prevent the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the ancestor of the modern NDP, from taking power.

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Christy Clark, shown at left on election night, will get the first chance to form a government. But Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver – shown at right with Sonia Furstenau, who won the Cowichan Valley riding for the Greens – has a role to play in whether Ms. Clark’s government lives or dies.

Clark and Weaver's next moves

For now, Ms. Clark is still premier, and she will be given the first chance to form a government, said Richard Johnston, a Canada research chair in public opinion, elections and representation at the University of British Columbia.

Mr. Johnston described the outcome as fluid, but one thing is certain: Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver is in a position of considerable power.

If he doesn't support Clark, then she's toast. ... The ball is in Weaver's court, because he holds the balance of power. The only way to get to a majority is for him to support one side or the other.

The first test of Ms. Clark's government would be a throne speech to open the legislature. If the Liberals haven't reached a deal with the Greens, she could dare Mr. Weaver and Mr. Horgan's NDP to vote her down, at which point they could join forces to form a government of their own. That would be similar to what happened when Bob Rae's NDP and the Liberals in Ontario voted down the Conservative minority government in 1986.

Mr. Johnston said it would have been an easier calculation for Mr. Weaver if the NDP had just one more seat, in which case he could feel more justified initiating a change in government. But with Ms. Clark winning the popular vote and the plurality of seats, that decision could be more volatile.

The Green Party Leader deflected questions about a possible coalition on Tuesday evening:

I've spoken to both leaders. We're going to have conversations. We're going to have to wait for the judicial reviews to be done. Nothing can be decided for the next two weeks, until we actually know what [the outcome is]. But I will be meeting with Mr. Horgan shortly and I'll be chatting with Ms. Clark as well because we believe we have a lot to offer and I'm looking forward to advancing those ideas at the B.C. legislature.

Mr. Johnston noted minority governments tend to be short-lived, and he predicted this one won't last a full four years. That could give the Liberals an advantage in an early election, he said:

The only party that can afford to rush into an election are the Liberals, because they've got so much money.

Mr. Weaver, on the other hand, might want to avoid a snap election to preserve his party's three seats, Mr. Johnston said:

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This may be the high point in history for the Green party. Then again, may be a start of a new era. We don't know.

The absentee ballots

While general and advance votes were tallied on Tuesday night, more than 176,100 absentee ballots have yet to be counted, according preliminary data from Elections BC. That's enough to change the outcome of a race in which several ridings were decided by fewer than 200 votes – including one the NDP won by just nine.

Absentee ballots – ballots cast by people outside of their electoral district, in a district office or by mail – are counted on the 13th day after the initial count, in accordance with the B.C. Election Act. This period allows for ballots cast outside of one's electoral district to be sent to the home district to be counted.

This means the final count will take place on May 22. It must be completed within three days, after which the final results will be announced.

In 2013, 163,674 absentee ballots accounted for 9 per cent of total votes, up from 5.8 per cent in 2009.

More people are choosing to vote in advance and by absentee ballot, said Andrew Watson, manager of communications at Elections BC.


Previous flips

Absentee ballots have tipped races before. In 2009, an initial count declared the NDP's Charlie Wyse the winner of the Cariboo-Chilcotin riding, with 23 votes more than the BC Liberals' Donna Barnett. But after a final count, which factored in absentee ballots as well as corrections of errors made during the initial count, Ms. Barnett was declared the winner by a margin of 88.

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That same year, Liberal Wally Oppal won Delta South by just three votes in the initial count. A final count, however, put his opponent, independent Vicki Huntington, in the lead by 32.


Courtenay-Comox NDP candidate Ronna-Rae Leonard defeated Liberal candidate Jim Benninger by just nine votes.

Courtenay-Comox

The closest race on Tuesday happened in the riding of Courtenay-Comox, halfway up Vancouver Island, where NDP candidate Ronna-Rae Leonard defeated Liberal candidate Jim Benninger by just nine votes.

There are various factors to consider when mulling how absentee ballots might affect the riding's final vote count. In 2013, absentee ballots were split fairly evenly between the two front runners, with 1,456 going to the NDP candidate and 1,431 going to the Liberal candidate. However, that was when the riding was known as Comox Valley; redistribution in 2015 shrank the riding, shaving off some NDP-friendly areas.

As well, this year's Liberal candidate, Mr. Benninger, is a former base commander of Canadian Forces Base Comox.

"If one's relying on past patterns in the absentee vote, that could change it," said Norman Ruff, an associate professor emeritus at the University of Victoria. "I think his background changes the dynamics of the political competition."

Should a recount tip the riding back to the Liberals, they could secure the magic number of seats – 44 – to form a majority government.

As of Wednesday, Elections BC did not yet have a breakdown of how many absentee ballots were cast in Courtenay-Comox.


Recounts

Recounts can be requested after the initial, general voting day count if the margin of victory is less than 100 or if a candidate or official agent believes that counting errors occurred during the initial count. The district electoral officer can then recount some or all of the advance or general ballots cast as part of the final count.

If, after this count, a race results in a tie or difference of less than 1/500th of total ballots cast, there must be a judicial recount.

This occurred in 2013, when the final count in Coquitlam-Maillardville put the leading candidate ahead by just 35 votes. A judicial recount upheld the results, confirming NDP candidate Selina Robinson as the winner, and no one appealed the finding.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, two requests for recounts were received for this year's election: One for Courtenay-Comox and one for Maple Ridge-Mission, which saw NDP candidate Bob D'Eith triumph over Liberal candidate Marc Dalton by 120 votes.

The former request will be granted, while the latter is currently under review, Mr. Watson said.


With reports from Evan Annett and The Canadian Press


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