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The March 1996 By-Elections – Technological Innovation – Reaping the Rewards


BEHIND THE SCENES

On February 7, 1996, when by-elections were announced in six vacant federal electoral districts, Elections Canada was ready for action. Head office staff had been expecting an announcement since the resignation of the federal Member for Labrador, the Hon. Bill Rompkey.

Computer programs and financial and administrative mechanisms were modified as required, and fine-tuned for instant take-off on the day the writs were issued. Public information documents, signs, training and procedures manuals, and forms were revised, updated and stored at the Distribution Centre. Also at the Centre, tons of electoral equipment and supplies were waiting for the green light to be shipped to the returning officers in the six ridings. The returning officers had all come to Ottawa to receive training and review the many procedures they would be called upon to administer during the election period.

INNOVATIONS

Enumeration was based on information stored in the ECAPLE (Elections Canada Automated Production of the Lists of Electors) system database. The version used last year was fine-tuned to reduce the possibility of error and decrease the time and costs of data capture. The enumeration forms used by enumerators for these by-elections included pre-printed addresses retrieved from the ECAPLE database. In their door-to-door visits, the enumerators collected the names of the electors residing at these addresses and added new addresses.

For these by-elections, Elections Canada decided to make use of the enormous potential of the information highway. In September and October 1995, an Internet pilot project had been conducted jointly with the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, for the territorial general election. Elections Canada decided to retain the site and broaden the range of information available.

The March 1996 by-elections served to test the effectiveness of Internet as a tool for communicating with the Canadian electorate in preparation for the next general election. All news releases issued by Elections Canada during the election period were posted on the Internet, as were the list of official candidates, the addresses of their campaign offices, and profiles of the six ridings, in addition to the names of the returning officers, their office addresses and their telephone and fax numbers. Candidates could select information of particular interest to them, such as expenditure limits and rules relating to contributions. All information on voting by Canadian electors abroad or absent from their ridings was formatted for direct onscreen access, including the special ballot registration form, which could be downloaded from the web site.

To be in a position to post results on the Internet as they were received from the six electoral districts on the evening of March 25, Elections Canada reviewed the operation and procedures of its automated Election Results System (ERS). During previous federal elections, returning officers faxed the unofficial results to Elections Canada in Ottawa from an ERS-produced printout. This time, the results were entered into a modified version of ERS and, by means of a direct telephone modem link to Elections Canada activated when vote counting began, the central computer retrieved local files minute by minute. The results were then sent by modem to the Elections Canada server, where they were verified and posted on the Internet.

A New Advertising Strategy

The communications team revised the advertising strategy for these by-elections in order to reach target audiences more effectively. Of the six electoral districts where a by-election was being held, three are primarily urban (Etobicoke North, Papineau­Saint-Michel and Saint-Laurent­Cartierville); the other three predominantly rural. For this reason, two different campaigns were designed to optimize the impact on each type of riding.

In the three urban ridings, the major advertising investment went into the production of three flyers, distributed to all households by Canada Post at appropriate times during the election period. In the other three electoral districts, a single flyer was distributed by Canada Post during enumeration week, complemented by a larger number of advertisements in local daily and weekly newspapers and on local radio stations.

The Right to Vote of Incarcerated Electors

For these by-elections, Elections Canada revised procedures for voting by incarcerated electors in light of the December 1995 decision by Mr. Justice Howard Wetston, of the Federal Court of Canada. Mr. Justice Wetston ruled in Sauvé that paragraph 51(e) of the Canada Elections Act, which specifies that incarcerated electors serving prison terms of two years or more are disqualified from voting, fundamentally violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and suspended its application. The guides and registration forms prepared for incarcerated electors were updated to remove any reference to the length of the sentence being served.