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Compendium of Election Administration in Canada: A Comparative Overview

I. Referendums, Plebiscites, Recall and Initiative

All jurisdictions permit referendums or plebiscites on a variety of issues. Most jurisdictions have separate legislation for referendums or plebiscites, although for purposes of general administration, these usually refer to the legislation governing the conduct of elections. Several jurisdictions, including Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, have provisions for the conduct of a plebiscite in the election legislation itself. The Chief Electoral Officer of Canada and that of Quebec are required to adapt their respective election legislation for the purposes of a referendum and to include this adaptation as regulations for the referendum legislation.

In each jurisdiction, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer administers all referendums and plebiscites. In Nova Scotia, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer conducts plebiscites under the Liquor Control Act to authorize the sale of liquor in the plebiscite area on behalf of the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation. In Nunavut, plebiscites related to liquor licensing or liquor prohibition or restrictions are conducted under the Liquor Act by the Chief Electoral Officer, through an administrative arrangement.

In most cases, referendums or plebiscites can be held on any issue deemed to be of public concern. However, several jurisdictions specify the subject matter of a referendum or plebiscite that may or must be held. Federally, a referendum may be held only on constitutional issues, including secession questions, while citizens in Nova Scotia may vote only on the sale of liquor, and Manitobans only to authorize the government to proceed with a tax increase, or to privatize Manitoba Hydro or Manitoba Public Insurance. In Ontario, a referendum may need to be held to authorize new taxes or an increase in the rate of taxation under certain statutes if these were not announced during a general election; however, a referendum can also be held on a non–tax-related issue if enabling legislation is introduced and passed beforehand, as was the case for the 2007 referendum on electoral system reform. In Saskatchewan, a referendum or plebiscite may be held on any issue, and a public vote may be held in specific areas to determine the standard time to be used in that area (called a time option vote). In Alberta and British Columbia, a plebiscite may be held on any matter of public concern, but a referendum must be held before the respective governments may proceed with an amendment to the Constitution of Canada or to the rate of taxation. Similarly, the government of Yukon may only initiate an increase in the rate of taxation after conducting a referendum, but it may hold a plebiscite on any issue. Yukon must also hold a referendum before introducing a new tax or on the Fuel and Oil tax. In all other jurisdictions, a referendum or plebiscite may be held on any issue.

Most referendums or plebiscites are proclaimed by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council, Commissioner or Commissioner in Executive Council, as the case may be. However, in Nova Scotia, plebiscites are held when the Chief Electoral Officer is satisfied that the request for a vote has been made in accordance with the Liquor Control Act. In Nunavut, plebiscites may be initiated by any of six particular plebiscite authorities. The plebiscite may be requested through a public petition. Saskatchewan is the only other jurisdiction in which a plebiscite may be instigated by a petition. There, a plebiscite may be proclaimed by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council, by the Legislative Assembly as a whole, or by a minister of the Crown upon receipt of a petition signed by 15 percent of the electors in Saskatchewan. A time option vote may also be initiated by a petition.

As a rule, referendums and plebiscites may be proclaimed at any time. However, in Quebec and federally, a referendum is cancelled if the writ for an election is issued during the referendum period.

In half of Canadian jurisdictions, the results of referendums and plebiscites are not binding. In other words, governments are not required to act on the results of a referendum or plebiscite. However, in Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation must respect the outcome of a plebiscite, as must the governments of Ontario, Manitoba and Yukon of a referendum on an increase in the taxation rate. In New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia, only the results of a referendum are binding; the results of a plebiscite are not. In Nunavut, the results of a plebiscite are binding in certain circumstances. In most cases where a referendum or plebiscite is binding, the outcome must be endorsed by a simple majority (50 percent + 1). However, a referendum or plebiscite is binding on the government of Saskatchewan only when more than 60 percent of electors vote in favour of a particular option and more than 50 percent of electors actually cast ballots (a time option area vote, however, is binding if endorsed by a simple majority of electors). In addition, if any referendum concerns the separation of a province, the federal government, under the Clarity Act, must determine that the question presented in the referendum was clear and unambiguous before entering into negotiations on secession with the province in question.

Canada, New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and Nunavut provide for the question presented in a referendum or a plebiscite to be clear and unambiguous. In Canada, New Brunswick, Quebec and Alberta, the question is submitted for approval to the legislative assembly. In Manitoba and Yukon, the question is determined by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council or the Commissioner in Executive Council. Ontario has the same provision, with the exception that the Chief Electoral Officer can make recommendations on the wording of the question.

Referendum committees exist only in Quebec and at the federal level. However, Ontario and Nunavut require an individual or group campaigning or advertising in favour of a particular option to apply for registration with the Chief Electoral Officer. In Nunavut, registration of groups is only required if they want to solicit or receive contributions. The contribution limit is $2,500. In Quebec, members of the National Assembly must register their choice of option with the Chief Electoral Officer within five days of the adoption by the National Assembly of the question, thus forming the committees in favour of each option. If no members of the Assembly come forward, the Chief Electoral Officer may invite up to 20 electors to register to form a committee. Since 1980, there have been only two referendum committees in Quebec, one for each option (i.e. the Yes option and the No option). There could be more than two committees if there were more than two options. The financial reporting requirements for referendum committees in Canada, Quebec and Ontario are similar to those for general elections.

Federally, there is no limit on the amount an individual or group may contribute to a referendum committee. However, no committee is permitted to spend more than $0.30 x a specific fraction provided in the legislation x the number of names on the preliminary list of electors in the areas where the committee has indicated it will be active. Individuals and groups may not spend an amount exceeding $5,000. In Quebec, the National Assembly must give each referendum committee an equal subsidy for its referendum fund. All expenses related to the referendum must be paid out of this fund. Contributions may be made only to the fund and no elector may contribute more than $3,000. Expenses must not exceed $1.00 per elector. In Saskatchewan, any expenses related to a referendum or a plebiscite are deemed to be election expenses.

Federally, each network broadcaster that broadcasts in the same language as the mother tongue of the majority of its listeners and is licensed for more than a particular series of programs or type of programming must provide a total of three hours to all registered referendum committees that have indicated they would like to receive broadcasting time. The time is then allocated by the Broadcasting Arbitrator, who must take into consideration the regional and national interests of the various committees and the different views on the referendum question. In Quebec, private intervenors (a neutral intervenor or non-affiliated elector), after obtaining the authorization of the Chief Electoral Officer, may spend up to $1,000 in advertising.

A blackout period is enforced federally, in Quebec and in Ontario. In Canada, the blackout period applies only on polling day and extends until the close of all polling stations in an electoral district. In Quebec, no referendum-related broadcasting may take place in the seven days following the referendum order or on polling day. For a tax referendum in Ontario, the blackout period lasts from the time of the issue of the writ until the 22nd day before polling day and again throughout polling day and the day immediately preceding it.

Recall and initiative

British Columbia is the only Canadian jurisdiction that has provisions for recall and initiative. Recall is the process whereby an elector may petition other electors in the electoral district for the removal of their elected member of the provincial legislature between elections. A member cannot be subject to a recall petition within the first 18 months after his or her election. A recall proponent must obtain an application from the Chief Electoral Officer, as well as provide a statement of no more than 200 words explaining why, in the proponent's opinion, the member should be recalled. If the Chief Electoral Officer approves, a proponent has 60 days to gather signatures from 40 percent of those on the list of electors for that electoral district in the last election who are currently registered to vote. For example, if there were 30,000 registered electors in the district at the last election, a proponent would be required to gather the signatures of 12,000 electors who were registered at the last election and are currently registered. The proponent must submit all completed petition sheets to the Chief Electoral Officer for verification. If the Chief Electoral Officer determines that enough signatures have been gathered and all financial provisions have been met, the member may no longer hold his or her seat in the legislature, and a by-election must be held. The recalled member may stand as a candidate in the by-election. Only one recall-related by-election is permitted in any electoral district between each general election.

Initiative is a process whereby an elector may petition other electors for the introduction of new laws, or changes to existing laws, on any matter within the jurisdiction of the provincial legislature. A registered voter must obtain an application from the Chief Electoral Officer, as well as provide a copy of the draft bill to be considered. A petition must receive the signatures of 10 percent of the electors in each electoral district in the province within 90 days. The Chief Electoral Officer then has 42 days to verify the signatures, whereupon the initiative must be presented to a select standing committee of the legislature. The select standing committee may either table a report recommending introduction of the draft bill or refer it to the Chief Electoral Officer to be put to the electorate in an initiative vote. In that vote, 50 percent + 1 of the electors from two thirds of all electoral districts must vote in favour of the initiative for it to pass. If the initiative passes the vote, the government must take steps to implement the bill.

An initiative petition is suspended if a general election is called during the 90-day petition-signing period. The proponent of the initiative must hand in all petition sheets to the Chief Electoral Officer, who is required to reissue the initiative petition as soon as practicable after the election. The proponent may only gather signatures for the remainder of the time that was left when the election was called. If a petition has been received by the standing committee, but not yet considered at the time an election is called, the standing committee must resume its deliberations after the election. If the standing committee has accepted a draft bill but not yet introduced it to the legislature when an election is called, the motion must be introduced as soon as possible after the election.

The British Columbia Recall and Initiative Act establishes financing and advertising regimes for each of these processes. Proponents of initiative and recall petitions are subject to spending limits, as are elected members in the case of recall. There are also restrictions on contributions, advertising and opinion polls. Typically, these provisions mirror related provisions for a general election. The Recall and Initiative Act makes reference to the relevant sections of the Election Act to determine spending limits and other financial provisions.

Table I.1 Proclamation, question and conditions

Jurisdiction Referendum or plebiscite proclaimed by Constitutional question Any issue Specified issue Binding Cancelled if election called Cancelled for any reason Requirement for the clarity of the question Approval of the question
Canada Governor in Council Yes – – No Yes –
  • Province secession referendum: Worded in a manner that avoids confusion on the objectives
  • Constitutional question: Shall be answered by a yes or no
  • Province secession referendum: Studied by the House of Commons, which may collect opinions from every relevant stakeholder
  • Constitutional question: Motion to be debated in the House of Commons and question given to recognized political parties in the House. Senate must approve the question
Newfoundland and Labrador Lieutenant-Governor in Council – Yes – No – Yes – –
Prince Edward Island Lieutenant-Governor in Council – Yes – No – – – –
Nova Scotia Chief Electoral Officer upon receiving a resolution of a municipal council or a petition signed by 20% of electors of a voting area – – Operation of store for sale of liquor. Also on the licensing of a premise if requested by 20% of the electors in the licensing area Yes – Yes Question is as follows: Are you in favour of the sale of liquor in your municipality by the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission in accordance with the Liquor Control Act? –
New Brunswick Lieutenant-Governor in Council – Yes –
  • Referendum: Yes, if more than 50% of valid ballots vote the same way and at least 50% of eligible voters cast a ballot
  • Plebiscite: No
– – Question shall be answered by a yes or no Question may be laid before a committee of the Legislative Assembly, which shall prepare, after consultation, a report concerning the wording of the question, including any suggested amendments to the wording. Question is adopted by a motion
Quebec Government – Yes A bill of National Assembly No Yes – – Question shall be debated in the National Assembly and adopted by a motion
Ontario Lieutenant-Governor in Council – – Unannounced new taxes or increased tax rates in specified tax statues Tax vote: Yes – – Taxpayer Protection Act, 1999: Must be clear, concise and impartial in its wording. Question may refer to a new or proposed tax increase Taxpayer Protection Act, 1999: Question is written and approved by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council. Chief Electoral Officer can make recommendations
Manitoba Government – – Increase in the rate of tax, or privatization of Manitoba Hydro or Manitoba Public Insurance Yes – Yes – Question determined by order of the Lieutenant-Governor in Council
  • Referendum: Lieutenant-Governor in Council
  • Plebiscite: Lieutenant-Governor in Council, Legislative Assembly, or minister upon receiving a petition signed by 15% of electors
– Yes A time option vote
  • Referendum: Yes, if more than 60% of valid ballots vote the same way and at least 50% of eligible voters cast a ballot
  • Plebiscite: No
  • Time option vote: Yes (simple majority)
– Yes
  • Question presenting more than two options must clearly state that the options are alternatives to each other
  • Question presenting two options so to be worded that a voter may express an opinion on the question by a yes or no
Alberta Lieutenant-Governor in Council A referendum must be held on any proposed changes to Constitution of Canada yes (plebis-cite) Impose a provincial tax
  • Referendum: Yes
  • Plebiscite: No
– – – Determined by a resolution of the Legislative Assembly on a motion from the Executive Council
British Columbia Lieutenant-Governor in Council A referendum must be held regarding any proposed changes to Constitution of Canada Yes Tax-related matters
  • Referendum: Yes
  • Plebiscite: No
– – In HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) Referendum Regulation, question is as follows: Are you in favour of extinguishing the HST and reinstating the Provincial Sales Tax in conjunction with the Goods and Services Tax? –
Yukon Commissioner in Executive Council – Yes
  • Increase in tax rate (referendum)
  • Prescription and prohibition of liquor licences
  • Referendum: Yes
  • Plebiscite: No
– – Liquor Act: Commissioner of the Executive Council may determine the text of the question Established by the Commissioner in Executive Council
Northwest Territories Commissioner – Yes Prescription and prohibition of liquor licences Liquor Act: Yes – Yes – –
  • Under Plebiscites Act: The Chief Electoral Officer by means of a writ upon written instruction by the Legislative Assembly, the Commissioner in Executive Council, a Minister, the council of a municipal corporation, an education authority or any other person or body with approval of the Chief Electoral Officer
  • Under Liquor Act: Order of the Minister
– Yes Prescription and prohibition of liquor licences
  • Under Plebiscites Act:
    Yes, if clearly indicated in writ and instructions to issue the writ
  • Under Liquor Act: Yes, in certain circumstances
– Yes
  • Under Plebiscites Act: Question must be clearly expressed
    in a way that is not misleading, equivocal or confusing to the voters
  • Under Liquor Act: Must reflect the content of the petition and may include other questions that the Minister considers desirable
Reviewed and approved by the CEO. If the CEO considers that a plebiscite question would contravene the clarity criteria, he or she shall advise the plebiscite authority on how the question could be revised to comply with those criteria

Table I.2 Referendum/plebiscite process

Jurisdiction Period Polling day Legislation that applies or is adapted Who makes regulations Requirement to produce a report Persons entitled to spend money and spending limit Who may contribute and limits on contributions
Canada Begins on day text of question is approved by Parliament and ends on polling day,
36 days from issue of writ
  • Referendum Act and Canada Elections Act as adapted by regulation apply to a referendum
Chief Electoral Officer Within 60 days of return of writ
  • Person/Group: $5,000
  • Registered referendum committee: $0.30 x fraction published pursuant to subsection 15(2) of Referendum Act for that year x number of names appearing on all preliminary lists of electors
  • Any individual who lives in Canada
  • Corporations who do business in Canada
  • Trade unions who hold bargaining rights for employees in Canada
  • No limit on contribution amount
Newfoundland and Labrador Minimum 21 days –
  • Elections Act, 1991, applies to a plebiscite or referendum
  • If a plebiscite or referendum is held in conjunction with one held by Government of Canada, Lieutenant-Governor in Council may agree that provisions of Canada Elections Act and Referendum Act (Canada) apply
Lieutenant-Governor in Council – Political parties, persons and groups of persons, as adapted from the Elections Act, 1991 Individuals, corporations and trade unions, as adapted from the Elections Act, 1991
Prince Edward Island – –
  • As nearly as possible, the Election Act and the Election Expenses Act apply to a plebiscite
  • Plebiscites Act
Lieutenant-Governor in Council – As adapted from the Election Expenses Act As adapted from the Election Expenses Act
Nova Scotia Minimum 30 days from date of letter commencing plebiscite Tuesday
  • Plebiscite conducted under Liquor Plebiscite Regulations; Chief Electoral Officer or Assistant Chief Electoral Officer under Elections Act have general supervision
Governor in Council – – –
New Brunswick
  • Plebiscite: In conjunction with provincial general election
  • Referendum: In conjunction with provincial general election or quadrennial elections under Municipalities Act, or within six months after question is adopted
  • Plebiscite governed by Elections Act
  • Referendum governed by Referendum Act with provisions adopted from Elections Act when coinciding with general election and Municipal Elections Act when coinciding with municipal election or no election
Lieutenant-Governor in Council
  • Plebiscite: At start of or during any session of Legislative Assembly
  • Referendum: Within 180 days after referendum date
  • Chief financial officer or any person who has been authorized by him or her
  • Referendum advertiser may only accept advertising contributions from individual ordinary residents in the province, corporations, trade unions or societies having their head office or doing business in the province
Quebec Minimum 33 days, maximum 39 days Monday Referendums governed by the Referendum Act Chief Electoral Officer Within 90 days of the event
  • Official agents and local agents shall incur expenses from "referendum fund"
  • Referendum expenses for each national committee shall not exceed $1 per elector
  • Government pays subsidy (the same amount for each national committee) into official agent referendum fund
  • Official representative of a political party may give or loan no more than $0.50 per elector in the aggregate of electoral divisions to official agent referendum fund
  • Individuals may contribute no more than $3,000 to each national committee in a same referendum
Ontario Minimum 28 days, maximum 56 days Thursday
  • Election Act and Election Finances Act apply, with necessary modifications
  • Taxpayer Protection Act, 1999
Lieutenant-Governor in Council – Taxpayer Protection Act, 1999:
  • Person or entity: Expenses not exceeding $1,000
  • Campaign organizers: Shall not exceed (indexed) $0.60 for each eligible voter in the electoral district
Taxpayer Protection Act, 1999:

Persons and entities may not contribute more than $7,500 in total to one or more registered campaign organizers in favour of the same result
Manitoba – –
  • Referendum conducted, to the extent possible, the same as a general election under The Elections Act, with necessary modifications
  • The Manitoba Hydro Act
  • The Balanced Budget, Fiscal Management and Taxpayer Accountability Act
  • The Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation Act
Lieutenant-Governor in Council – No limit, unless otherwise determined by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council No limit, unless otherwise determined by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council
  • Referendum: Minimum 29 days
  • Plebiscite: Minimum 29 days or, if the result of a petition, within 12 months
  • Referendums and plebiscites conducted under The Election Act, with any necessary modifications
  • For a time option area vote, the Time Act and the Local Government Election Act apply
  • Referendum and Plebiscite Act
Lieutenant-Governor in Council – Any referendum or plebiscite expenses are deemed to be election expenses if the referendum or plebiscite period overlaps with an election –
Alberta – –
  • Referendum may be held according to Election Act or Local Authorities Election Act; plebiscite must be conducted under Election Act with necessary modifications
  • Constitutional Referendum Act
  • A tax-related referendum must be conducted under the Alberta Taxpayer Protection Act
Lieutenant-Governor in Council Immediately after each plebiscite No limit, unless otherwise determined by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council No limit, unless otherwise determined by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council
British Columbia – –
  • Provisions of Election Act may apply to referendum and must apply to plebiscite
  • Referendum Act
Lieutenant-Governor in Council or Chief Electoral Officer Immediately after each plebiscite – –
Yukon – –
  • A tax-related referendum must be conducted under the Taxpayer Protection Act
  • Elections Act
  • An alcohol-related plebiscite must be conducted under the Liquor Act
  • Plebiscite Act
Commissioner in Executive Council – – –
Northwest Territories – Monday
  • Elections and Plebiscites Act
Chief Electoral Officer Only with official results and any other matter considered necessary by the CEO – –
Nunavut – All reasonable efforts must be made to ensure that plebiscite day is within period desired by plebiscite authority
  • Plebiscites Act
  • An alcohol-related plebiscite must be conducted under the Liquor Act
Management and Services Board Before the end of the post plebiscite period Financial agent or a person authorized in writing by a financial agent of a registered group (no expense limit) Individuals residing in Nunavut, as well as corporations and unincorporated associations in Nunavut:

  • Cannot exceed $2,500 in total
  • Anonymous contributions cannot exceed $100