VANCOUVER -- British Columbia’s provincial election is taking place in the middle of a pandemic. But COVID-19 is not top of mind for voters as they mail in their ballots or head to advance polls, new research has found.

A new online study from Research Co., conducted at the beginning of October, suggests that the coronavirus and even health care are not the number one issues for British Columbians planning to vote.

Instead, housing, poverty and homelessness came out on top, tied with the economy and jobs, says Mario Canseco, the research company’s president. 

“What this really shows us is a situation in which British Columbians are no longer looking at COVID-19 as an urgent matter,” he says. “I think we’ve made peace with the fact that it is going to be here for a while, and we want to focus on specific things that the politicians can deal with that are going to go beyond COVID-19.”

Twenty-five per cent of respondents to the survey selected housing and economic issues as their primary concern, respectively. But health care was a close third, with 23 per cent ranking it as their defining concern. 

And the importance of those three issues also differs by age group. Housing, homelessness and poverty were number one for potential voters from 18 to 34 years old, while the 55 and up category chose health care. The group in between, middle-aged British Columbians, were most concerned with the economy and jobs. 

“What is really striking about this election, especially when we compare it with other ones, is the absence of a salient issue that is defining everything,” Canseco says. “This makes this campaign unique. There’s no salient issue that (the parties) can connect with. You need to talk about all three if you want to get voters from all age groups.” 

That may come as a surprise in an election campaign unlike any other, defined by the restrictions of the pandemic. Candidates aren’t going door to door to rustle up votes, and they’re certainly not shaking hands or kissing babies. 

Research Co.’s data shows other surprises too. The environment, previously a campaign-defining issue in the province, has dropped in the rankings from where it was in previous years. 

“There was a point when we had the environment somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent - a lot of residents were worried about climate change and environmental aspects of their lives in British Columbia,” Canseco says. “And now we have it at a level that is roughly the same that we have in Saskatchewan – it’s less than 10 per cent.”

That could prove to be a problem for the Green Party, who have a stronger presence in B.C. than in much of the rest of the country. 

“And now we are in second or sometimes third place because Quebecors are more likely to say that the environment is the number one issue facing the country,” Canseco says. 

“One of the situations that we see is the same level of discussion that we had about pipelines maybe three, four years ago, is what we’re seeing in Quebec right now. But it’s also quite ironic in the sense that you don’t really have a Green Party provincially that is functioning, and you don’t have a lot of support for the Green Party federally in Quebec, so you have those concerns about the environment but you have nowhere to vote for if you’re an environmentally conscious voter.”

Even though COVID-19 didn’t make it into the top three, eight per cent of voters surveyed did mention it as a concern, ahead of the four per cent who said crime was an important issue, the three per cent who chose accountability, and the one per cent who chose education or energy. 

Research Co. interviewed 750 likely voters in British Columbia online between Oct. 5 and 7. The margin of error is +/- 3.6 percentage points for likely voters and +/- 3.7 percentage points for decided voters, 19 times out of 20.