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BC Election 2020

Why BC’s Strange Pandemic Election Is Likely Already Over

Campaign 2020 has seen online campaigning, lower spending limits, mail-in ballots — and BC Liberal fumbling that gives a big edge to the NDP.

David Moscrop 13 Oct 2020 |

David Moscrop is a columnist for the Washington Post and Maclean’s and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow in the department of communication at the University of Ottawa.

When B.C. Premier John Horgan called a snap election in late September, he cited the need for stability during — and beyond — the pandemic. “I believe,” said Horgan, “the challenges we face are not for the next 12 months, but indeed for the next four years and beyond.”

The province was scheduled for an election in October 2021, but Horgan did an end run around the fixed election date law even though the legislature was working the way legislatures are meant to work, and the NDP’s governing deal with the Green party was serving the province well.

Whether the need for “stability” was really top of Horgan’s mind prior to the call, the chance to catch the Liberals and Greens off guard and take his party’s surging popularity for a ride surely was. Three days after the premier announced that British Columbians would head to the polls in October, CBC’s Poll Tracker had the orange side at 44.1 per cent compared to the BC Liberals at 31.6 per cent. Since then, the NDP lead has remained steady and in the double digits. I can’t imagine it’s going to move much in the days to come.

Whatever happens between now and the end of the campaign on Oct. 24, the 2020 B.C. election will be remembered for being different from past contests, and not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This election is the first the New Democrats are fighting as the incumbent government since 1996, when they won. It’s also the first under new party and campaign finance regulations introduced by the government in 2017.

Before the changes, the province was, as the New York Times put it, "The ‘Wild West’ of Canadian political cash.” As observers at the time were quick to note, when the Americans are pointing out that you’ve got a money-in-politics problem, you’ve really got a money-in-politics problem. Under the old rules, which basically didn’t exist, parties could accept limitless individual, union and corporate donations — as well as foreign cash.

The party and campaign finance reforms introduced by the BC NDP soon after they formed government restricted both who could donate and how much they could offer. Now, only B.C. residents who are either citizens of Canada or permanent residents may contribute to political parties — no more foreign, union or corporate cash allowed. For elections, individuals are also subject to a reasonably low contribution limit of $1,253 to each party and each independent candidate.

After the rules were introduced, contributions to parties plummeted. And just as parties were taking in less money from donors, new rules also reduced how much they could spend during elections by roughly a quarter.

In 2017, before the changes, parties were limited to just over $77,600 for each candidate and about $4.9 million for the party as a whole for the 29-day election period based on a formula that counted the campaign length and the number of electors in the province. Both the Liberals and the NDP ended up spending close to the limit, at $4.6 million and $4.3 million respectively, with the Greens coming in just above $900,000. For the 2020 race, parties will have 34 days of spending, but will be limited to $4.6 million, with candidates limited to slightly more than $66,100 — less than in 2017 despite more potential voters and a longer election period.

Ahead of the election call, the NDP took the opportunity to outspend their rivals on social media ad buys. Of course, the New Democrats knew when the race would begin, and so they took advantage of the headstart. As CTV reported in September, “the BC NDP has spent 10 times as much as the BC Liberals and about 85 times more than what the Green party did on Facebook advertising in the week leading up to the election call.” The technology might change, but some tactics remain the same.

The digital-first push reflects not only a move towards social media advertising that has been developing for years, but also the unusual nature of an election being contested during a pandemic in which physical distancing is the norm. British Columbia’s pandemic election has seen plenty of digital plays, from awkward to clever videos posted to Twitter and Facebook; connections by way of Zoom; old school TV and radio advertisements; and physically-distanced, limited-crowd campaign stops and sidewalk chats.

There have been media availabilities, with plenty of journalists connecting by phone and as always, lawn signs. There has even been some door knocking from the Liberals (though the NDP has foregone the tactic) and “reverse door knocking” — though it’s unlikely that any of that will make a difference to the election’s outcome.

Ultimately, this election is a somewhat downbeat if digital-heavy affair compared to past contests, but that, too, probably doesn’t matter.

The NDP has held its lead throughout the campaign. While the BC Liberals have tried to play catch-up, they’ve failed with a campaign so weak it ought to be registered as an in-kind donation to the NDP. A hail Mary promise by the Liberals to suspend the PST caught some attention, but didn’t much move the numbers.

And the Liberals were caught in a scandal this weekend after a video of candidate and MLA Jane Thornthwaite making sexist comments about NDP MLA Bowinn Ma was shared on Twitter by Mo Amir. The video includes Leader Andrew Wilkinson, who watched as Thornthwaite “roasted” outgoing Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan, and several other Liberal candidates and familiar faces. Both Thornthwaite’s and Wilkinson’s apologies were slow to come — and weak. It was a wretched affair, save for the powerful response from Ma.

While little can be taken for granted during an election, especially by the BC NDP, this one seems to be signed, sealed and all but delivered to the New Democrats as a majority government.

Tonight’s debate is unlikely to have much of an effect on the race. Debates don’t typically matter much, though it may be a chance for Green Leader Sonia Furstenau to boost her party’s campaign and cut a bit into the support of the two leading parties.

The most significant uncertainty for now seems to be another consequence of an election held during a pandemic — what will be made of the ton of postal ballots that will be sent between now and election day. As of Oct. 8, Elections BC had received about 646,000 requests for vote-by-mail packages. It anticipates as many as 40 per cent of B.C. residents may vote by mail. That’s a staggering jump from the 2017 election, in which a mere 2.2 per cent of ballots were cast by mail, or 6,517 completed ballots out of the 11,268 that were requested. The numbers are so high this year, in fact, that it’s possible that determining a winner will be delayed well beyond election night.

Nonetheless, with Horgan and the NDP holding a steady and big lead in the polls and the Liberals falling on their face at every opportunity, the 2020 contest seems all but over.

The election will ultimately be remembered for a lot of things: small, physically distanced “events,” a sharp uptick in digital campaigning, politicians and journalists in masks and enough postal ballots to fill BC Place. But it’s not likely to be remembered as a nail-biter, even if it takes weeks to get the full results.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Election 2020

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