UBC political-science expert says early provincial election would be unwise

B.C. Premier John Horgan has refused to definitively say whether he will call an early provincial election, amid speculation that British Columbians will be heading to the polls a year earlier than scheduled.
B.C. Premier John Horgan has refused to definitively say whether he will call an early provincial election, amid speculation that British Columbians will be heading to the polls a year earlier than scheduled. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

As political pundits speculate on whether B.C. Premier John Horgan will actually call a snap provincial election a year earlier than scheduled, a University of British Columbia political science expert says it would be extremely unwise.

“First of all, the optics are terrible,” UBC professor emeritus Richard Johnston said.

Horgan has refused to rule out the possibility of an early election for weeks now.

“It’s mandated, by next October,” Horgan told reporters earlier this week. “And so there’s an opportunity this fall. There’s an opportunity next spring. There’s an opportunity next summer. When that happens is not necessarily clear to me today.”

Johnston said Horgan may be influenced by overconfident strategists excited about his polling results — but he said he’s sure the premier knows that the public is too preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, that’s affected jobs, schooling and livelihood, to want an election.

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Read more: B.C. premier won’t rule out fall election, Elections BC working on pandemic protocols

A pandemic, he added, that’s going in the wrong direction right now, amid a spike in cases in B.C.

“If we were to go into an election, we would be doing so in the middle of a resurgence of the pandemic,” Johnston said.

“Not a good position to be in politically, not a good position administratively, not a good position ethically. So there’s that.”

He said polling numbers that predict a decisive victory for the NDPs aside, he’d be interested to see whether voters would be annoyed enough with a snap election to punish the party in the polls.

Johnston said the NDP certainly has ramped up political activity in the past few weeks, announcing candidates and holding press conferences that some analysts say are really campaign events.

“They may have wound up the machinery. I’m not so sure they’ll go through with it. And I don’t think it’ll be wise.”

Johnston pointed out that the scheduled election is just over a year away, on Oct. 16, 2021, and parties would begin some preparations over the next few weeks or months anyway.

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Read more: Lieutenant governor should tell B.C. premier to ‘think about it’ before calling election: expert

He said a legal challenge from the BC Teachers’ Federation over the province’s back-to-school plan could prove an untimely distraction for a government hoping to be re-elected early.

“There’s also the fact that the schooling situation is uncertain. So far at least it hasn’t proven to be a medical disaster, the rollout — but parents are uncertain.”

Johnston said another important question is whether Elections BC is equipped to handle its first pandemic election.

“For example, if in response to concerns about exposure they are forced to implement a stronger early voting regime or a mail-in-ballot regime, do we know that ElectionsBC would be ready to do that right now — as opposed to a year from now?”

Read more: Most Canadians back postponing elections until after COVID-19 pandemic: Ipsos poll

Elections BC has been working with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s office on a plan for the possibility that British Columbians do need to head to the polls during the pandemic.

B.C. would see increased advance voting opportunities to help reduce voting place crowds, increased use of remote voting options, and physically distanced polling stations.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic makes it very likely that the next election will be held under some level of public health restrictions,” reads a statement from Elections BC.

“Administering safe and accessible elections during the pandemic is a challenge that election administrators across Canada and around the world are grappling with. Part of our mandate is to be ready to administer an election when required.”

— With files from Richard Zussman