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A Century of Evolution

Black and white image of three men and three women sitting around a kitchen table piled with documents, an ash tray and metal ballot box.
Credit: Duncan Cameron, Library and Archives Canada, PA-169856

Did you know?

One aspect of running federal elections that hasn't changed in 100 years is the need to keep voting secure. Today, Elections Canada uses high- and low-tech safeguards, like counting ballots by hand in front of witnesses and giving each ballot a unique serial number, to preserve the integrity of the voting process.

In some ways, elections today don't look that different than they did a century ago. For example, Canadians still vote using a paper ballot marked by hand.

However, many aspects of running a federal election have changed, including the places, processes and technologies involved. Behind each decision to either keep a time-tested system or innovate into something new is a responsibility to serve Canadians better while maintaining the integrity of Canada's democratic process.

Knock knock, are you registered?

Cartoon rendering of a woman and man holding a clipboard as they speak to a mother holding a baby on the doorstep of her home.
Elections Canada ad from the 1970s about enumeration.

For most of the last 100 years, Elections Canada prepared its list of who was eligible to vote by going door to door across Canada every time an election was called. Collecting the names and addresses of those eligible to vote was called enumeration and it was a massive task.

The former Chief Electoral Officer, Nelson Castonguay, explained the process in a 1962 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

Returning officers have to select and appoint approximately 67,000 enumerators, give them their supplies, and the enumeration commences […]. And they're given six days to collect roughly 9,800,000 names.

As a solution, a permanent list was introduced in 1997. It created what's known as the National Register of Electors, which is a continually updated database with the information of all Canadians who are eligible to vote.

Keeping a permanent register proved to be more efficient and less expensive than enumeration.

The quality of the register has improved with each election, and, today, it's more accurate and comprehensive than ever before.

Getting the word out

If you're old enough, you may remember when the list of eligible voters was posted on a telephone pole, tree or building. For a long time, this was how voters could check to see if their name and address had been correctly recorded by enumerators. It was also how you would find out where your polling station would be on election day.

A man wearing a suit and a long coat walks by a tree that has several documents pinned to it, one of which reads 'Notice of Election'.
Credit: Pierre Gaudard, Canadian Photography Institute

While this system was the best way to reach voters at the time, it wasn't fool-proof. Election workers had to rush to type up the lists after enumerators did their work, and there could be spelling errors. Some people were concerned about privacy (given their names and addresses were posted publicly) and there was no way to guarantee the list wouldn't be torn down or damaged by the weather.

You won't find voters lists on any telephone poles or trees today. Instead, Elections Canada sends a personalized information card to every registered elector.

Location, location, location

In the first few elections after the creation of Elections Canada in 1920, a polling station could be set up almost anywhere, including in someone's home. Instructions at the time simply said that polling stations had to be "in a room or building of convenient access, with an outside door for the admittance of voters."

There were no rules that required election workers to look for places that were wheelchair accessible, or to consider how far a voter might have to travel to cast a ballot.

A yellow Elections Canada sign and a blue wheelchair access sign hang on a pair of glass of doors that look into a space being used as a polling station.

Today, selecting polling locations is an extensive, continuous process. More than 20,000 polling stations are needed for a federal election and each one is carefully picked using modern mapping tools and a list of criteria. Election workers have to find polling stations that are accessible, close to voters in the area, and familiar to the community. One particular challenge is that an ideal location may not be available on the dates when it is needed.

Ultimately, everything from parking to Internet access is taken into consideration, and Elections Canada is always looking to find the best location to serve voters.