The Electoral System of Canada
Pillars of Electoral Democracy
What are the main characteristics of Canada's electoral democracy?
Democracy does not implement itself, nor does it remain strong and healthy without underlying values and a firm will to apply and enforce them. Democracy is much more than holding elections; however, free and fair elections are one of its fundamental conditions.
Over time, Canadians have come to trust the outcome of elections as truly reflecting their collective will without political interference. Political parties and candidates in the political arena have also learned that they can have confidence in the fairness of the electoral process. Together, these conditions contribute to a meaningful and peaceful environment for elections, and a lively and long-lasting democracy.
Participation, Fairness and Transparency
Throughout the evolution of the Canadian electoral system, legislators have worked to bring about increased accessibility, fairness and transparency to ensure the prevalence of democratic values.
Candidates, nomination contestants (those competing for endorsement as a party's candidate in an electoral district), leadership contestants, political parties, electoral district associations and third parties (persons or groups who are not candidates, registered parties or electoral district associations) are all subject to strict controls. These begin with an obligation for political parties, electoral district associations, leadership contestants and third parties to register, thereby gaining official status and some associated benefits. All political entities must comply with administrative and legal requirements and must report their revenues, expenses and liabilities to the Chief Electoral Officer, who makes this information available to the public.
Limits on contributions and expenses exist mainly to ensure transparency and fairness and to reduce the possibility of undue influence. By avoiding a spiral of escalating election spending, legislators have made elections more equitable and accessible for less wealthy candidates who wish to enter the competition. It is believed that a level playing field attracts more participants, diversifies political discourse and increases overall participation, including attendance at the polls.
Over time, various court challenges and judicial decisions related to election expenses limits, particularly those imposed on third parties, have shown that striking a balance between the values of liberty and equality is a delicate process. While some measures governing electoral participants may be perceived as restricting their freedom of expression or association, it is widely accepted that these legislative provisions contribute to the proper functioning of a democratic society.
In the context of democratic elections, participation includes broader forms of involvement, such as volunteering at any level of the political process and contributing funds to political entities. Since 1974, the law has provided an incentive in the form of tax credits to Canadians who decide to make a financial contribution to candidates and registered political parties. This incentive was extended in 2004 to contributions made to registered electoral district associations.
Secrecy and Privacy
Voting in Canada is by secret ballot. The security of the ballot is paramount, and the system makes it impossible to discover for which candidate a specific voter has voted. Furthermore, a ballot cast with a mark that could potentially allow the voter to be identified has to be rejected. This is to ensure that no electors are intimidated or bribed into voting in a particular way. Intimidation and bribery, as well as any attempt to reveal how an elector has voted or is going to vote, is an offence under the Canada Elections Act.
The privacy of electors is also very important to Elections Canada, and it is enforced in all aspects of electoral administration. For example, to enforce the right to privacy, the use of personal information obtained for electoral purposes is strictly regulated. The law imposes controls on who can obtain this information and how it can be used, and it sets out penalties for non-compliance.
The success of the Canadian electoral system is in part a result of its ability to adapt to changing social circumstances. Canada's electoral laws will continue to evolve as Parliament responds to judicial decisions and expanding public expectations and takes advantage of new technologies. Canada's electoral system is a reflection of Canadians' continued concern for fairness and democracy as well as Elections Canada's ongoing commitment to innovation and excellence in delivering federal electoral events.