open Secondary menu

Returning Officer's Manual

Chapter 16 – By-elections

This Chapter contains information for procedures during a by-election. This information will make you aware of any procedures that differ from those of a general election. Procedures that apply to both by-elections and general elections appear in the remainder of this manual.

16.1 Introduction

A by-election occurs when a seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant between general elections because the sitting Member of Parliament (MP) has died, resigns or becomes ineligible to sit for any reason. Two or more by-elections may be held at the same time.

By-elections are called in a similar manner to general elections. When a seat in the House becomes vacant, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) is informed by means of a Speaker's warrant. The CEO must issue the writ for the by-election between the 11th and 180th days after receiving the Speaker's warrant. The Governor in Council makes an order for a by-election to be held. The order fixes the date of issue of the writ and the date for election day, which cannot be earlier than 36 days after the CEO issues the writ. There is no maximum period for a by-election. On the day the writ is issued, the CEO will inform you that a by-election has been called.

Note that if Parliament is dissolved after the writ for a by-election has been issued, the Parliament of Canada Act deems the writ for the by-election to have been superseded and withdrawn. The Canada Elections Act requires the CEO to publish a notice in the Canada Gazette that the writ has been withdrawn and the by-election cancelled.

While many of the provisions that apply to general elections also apply to by-elections, others do not apply. This Chapter highlights the procedures that differ from those of a general election. Where procedures are the same as for a general election, they appear in the remainder of this manual.

16.2 Nomination Paper

The CEO will provide you with the name(s) of the person or persons who are authorized by the party to endorse prospective candidates.
par. 67(4)(c)

The letter of endorsement may be filed in person, by mail or electronically: you may receive a scanned copy by email or receive it by fax. You must receive the letter no later than 48 hours after the close of nominations (2:00 p.m., Day 19). If you do not receive the letter by this date, contact the candidate to find out how and when it was sent. Then contact the Electoral Coordination Help Desk with this information to seek further instructions.

16.3 Residence at a By-election

To be qualified to vote at a by-election, an elector must reside in the electoral district on the first day of the revision period, and must continue to reside there until polling day. This means that:

16.4 Election Day Hours

If only one by-election is held, or if more than one by-election is held on the same day and all of them are in the same time zone, the hours of voting are from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Elections Canada will confirm the by-election voting hours in your electoral district (ED).
s. 131

For example:

Table 16a: By-election held in one time zone
By-election Time Zone Poll Opening (local time) Poll Closing (local time)
By-election 1 Atlantic 8:30 a.m. 8:30 p.m.
By-election 2 Atlantic 8:30 a.m. 8:30 p.m.
By-election 3 Atlantic 8:30 a.m. 8:30 p.m.

If more than one by-election is held on the same day and they are located in different time zones, each ED must adhere to the normal staggered voting hours established for its local time zone as prescribed by the Canada Elections Act:
ss. 128(1)

For example:

Table 16b: By-elections held in various time zones
By-election Time Zone Poll Opening (local time) Poll Closing (local time)
By-election 1 Atlantic 8:30 a.m. 8:30 p.m.
By-election 2 Eastern 9:30 a.m. 9:30 p.m.
By-election 3 Pacific 7:00 a.m. 7:00 p.m.
By-election 4 Atlantic 8:30 a.m. 8:30 p.m.

16.5 Voting by Special Ballot

Voting by special ballot during a by-election is governed by the Special Voting Rules, set out in Part 11 of the Canada Elections Act, as adapted for the purposes of a by-election.
s. 178(2)

At a by-election, voting by special ballot is available to all categories of electors: local, national, international, incarcerated, and Canadian Forces.

In the local Elections Canada office, the special ballot coordinator will deal with only two of these categories: local and national electors.

Local Electors

A local elector lives in an electoral district (ED) where a by-election is being held. He or she registers and votes in that ED.

Local electors must ensure that their ballots are received in the office of the returning officer (RO) by the close of polls in their ED.

National Electors

A national elector lives in an ED where a by-election is being held, but will cast his or her ballot outside that ED.

During a by-election, national electors may register to vote by special ballot at any Elections Canada office where a by-election is being held, or directly with Elections Canada Headquarters (ECHQ).

National electors may vote by mail and must ensure that their ballot arrives at Elections Canada no later than 6:00 p.m., Eastern time, on election day.

International Electors

Once a by-election is called, Elections Canada sends a personalized special ballot kit to every registered elector who resides outside Canada and whose ordinary residence, for electoral purposes, is located in an ED where a by-election is being held.

The international elector votes by mail and is responsible for ensuring that Elections Canada receives the ballot no later than 6:00 p.m., Eastern time, on election day.

Incarcerated Electors

At a by-election, incarcerated electors whose address of ordinary residence is located in an ED where a by-election is being held vote by mail. Therefore, no polling stations are required in correctional institutions.

Elections Canada ships registration material to every correctional facility in Canada. A staff member of the facility is appointed as a liaison officer to assist electors with the registration process.

Electors who are incarcerated must complete an Application for Registration and Special Ballot form and return the completed and signed form to Elections Canada before the legislated deadline.

After the 19th day before election day, once the candidates are confirmed, Elections Canada sends a personalized special ballot voting kit to each incarcerated elector whose application has been approved.

The incarcerated elector is responsible for ensuring that Elections Canada receives the ballot no later than 6:00 p.m., Eastern time, on election day.

Canadian Forces Electors

After a by-election is called, Elections Canada sends a personalized special ballot voting kit to every Canadian Forces elector whose Statement of Ordinary Residence (SOR) lists an address in the ED where the by-election is taking place.

The Canadian Forces elector is responsible for ensuring that ECHQ receives the ballot no later than 6:00 p.m., Eastern time, on election day.

However, Canadian Forces electors may vote at the polling station established for the polling division of their place of ordinary residence if, as of polling day, they ordinarily reside in the ED that contains the address shown on their SOR, provided they have not already voted by special ballot.

16.6 Publication of Unofficial (Preliminary) Results

During a by-election, preliminary results inputted into the Event Results System are transmitted only to ECHQ. The unofficial results can be observed at The results are not usually forwarded to a media consortium representative, but you may forwardthem to any media upon request.

16.7 Validation of the Results

By-elections are usually held when the House of Commons is sitting. The newly elected Member of Parliament is understandably anxious to take his or her seat in the House.

It is your responsibility to hold the validation of results as soon as possible. However, when you set the date and time (by preparing the Notice of Election), you need to account for the time it will take for the ballot boxes to be returned to your office and for your office to prepare for the validation. Your assistant returning officer must be available to participate in the entire validation process as well.

16.8 Observers' Program

By-elections offer useful learning opportunities for employees working at ECHQ in Gatineau. Since these typically require fewer ECHQ staff to provide field support than general elections, by-elections present the ideal learning environment for ECHQ staff to become familiar with specific aspects of the electoral process that are directly related to their field of activity. The observer program enables them to gain valuable insight into how the programs and services developed at headquarters are implemented in the field and how Elections Canada can improve upon these programs and services to enhance support provided and better meet the needs of election workers between and during events.

During a by-election, participants go to the electoral district and observe the business lines relevant to their areas of interest. For instance, ECHQ personnel responsible for the updating of manuals used on polling day may want to observe how election workers apply the procedures presented in these manuals. Observers are not sent to evaluate the conduct of the election but rather to observe how processes and procedures associated with their work are implemented. ECHQ staff require authorization from the CEO to access polling sites during the by-election. Appropriate arrangements are made for this purpose at ECHQ. All observers must adhere to a code of conduct when visiting an electoral district.

The by-election observer program is directly linked to Elections Canada's values of maintaining a knowledgeable and professional workforce. Your cooperation in facilitating visits by ECHQ observers may therefore be sought if a by-election is called in your electoral district.

16.9 New Returning Officer Training Program

By-elections offer a very good opportunity for new ROs to see first-hand how elections are managed in neighbouring EDs. In these instances, new ROs will visit the by-election ED, with the approval of the RO, and be accompanied by a field liaison officer to ensure that they do not disturb the work that the RO and his or her staff must accomplish. Your cooperation may therefore be sought for this type of activity.

16.10 Pilot Projects

One of Elections Canada's strategic objectives is to make the electoral process more accessible by testing innovative ways for electors to register and vote. Elections Canada is committed to looking at new options, both conventional and technical, to facilitate registration and voting for electors. New voting initiatives can be tested during by-elections only with the prior approval of the appropriate parliamentary committees or, in the case of an alternative electronic voting process, the approval of the House of Commons and the Senate.

Any new voting method that is introduced must complement traditional ways of serving electors. Elections Canada must ensure widespread access to registration and voting, especially for Canadians who do not have access to technology or are unable to use it. People with disabilities or special needs, youth and people who are away from home may see these new methods as opportunities to improve their access to voting.

By-elections are the best time to test on a smaller scale new initiatives designed to improve Canada's electoral process and to continue developing an accessible electoral framework that Canadians trust and use. In past by-elections, new initiatives such as the closing instructions for deputy returning officers, the large-size mock-up of a ballot and the collection of voter information cards among other pilot projects – proved to be helpful in determining whether a new process should be implemented during a subsequent general election.

Pilot projects can elicit feedback from ROs and their staff, poll workers, candidate representatives and, last but not least, the public at large, especially electors. Elections Canada continually strives to improve the electoral process, to promote compliance with the Canada Elections Act and to provide effective ways for electors to learn about their voting rights and the electoral process. It is therefore feasible that future pilot projects will be tested during one or more by-elections and that your cooperation will be required.