Vote by Mail – CEO Appearance on the Special Report of the Chief Electoral Officer: Administering an Election during the COVID-19 Pandemic
The special ballot voting process is currently geared towards voting at designated service points, such as local Elections Canada offices, special voting kiosks and other service points.
To date, voting by mail from one's home has been a marginal voting channel, with minimal business capacity assigned to it.
Elections Canada expects an unprecedented increase in requests to vote by mail in an election held during the pandemic, which may delay the release of preliminary election results for special ballots.
Elections Canada is working on expanding its capacity to manage an increased volume of mail-in ballots in a safe, secure and timely manner.
Method of voting in past two general elections
Absentee* (From outside electoral district)
Local (From inside electoral district)
Day of the election
Total votes cast
Proportion of special ballots voted by mail, 43rd general election in 2019
Voting by mail and voting by special ballot: Basic concepts
Electors who cannot vote at their designated polling station, in advance or on election day, may only vote by special ballot.
They may apply and vote by special ballot at any local Elections Canada office, or points of service set up to serve transient populations or communities who face particular challenges exercising their right to vote.
If they do not wish to or cannot vote at the nearest Elections Canada point of service, they may apply to vote by mail. They must do so in writing and provide copies of proof of identity and address to their returning officer (RO) or to the Special Voting Rules Administrator (SVRA) in Ottawa.
Electors who wish to vote by mail from outside their electoral district must apply to the SVRA. They can do so online, where they can upload scanned copies of their proof of identity and address. Online applications eliminate the need for data to be captured manually in the voter registration system, thus reducing the time needed to handle requests.
Electors who wish to vote by mail from within their electoral district must mail their application and copies of proof of identity and address documents to their local RO office. RO office staff check the application and record the information in the voter registration system through manual data entry before mailing a special ballot voting kit to the applicant.
Voting by mail involves these steps:
An elector completes an Application for Registration and Special Ballot, and submits it to Elections Canada with copies of proof of identity and address. Canadians who reside abroad may register in advance to vote by mail. All other electors may only apply for a special ballot after the issue of the writs, and may do so only until the 6th day before election day. Once a request to vote by special ballot has been made, the elector cannot vote by any other means during the election.
Once a request has been verified and captured in the voter registration system, a unique identification number is generated. This number is stored in the Elections Canada voter registration system and recorded on the outer envelope that will contain the secrecy envelope containing the marked ballot sent back to Elections Canada. The name and address of the elector, as they appear on the piece of ID, are recorded on the outer envelope as well.
Once the elector has received their voting kit, they mark the ballot with the name of their preferred candidate; writing just a political party name is not accepted.
A voted ballot is put inside a secrecy envelope, itself inserted into the outer envelope. The outer envelope, which contains the registration number unique to the elector, as well as their name and address, is signed by the elector and placed in a mailing envelope that will be sent to Elections Canada by mail or dropped off at a local Elections Canada office.
Upon receipt of the mailed ballot, Elections Canada staff verify that the information on the outer envelope matches the information recorded in the voter registration system at the time of registration and that the declaration on the outer envelope has been signed. Once verified, outer envelopes are set aside until vote counting begins, at which point the inner secrecy envelope is separated from the outer envelope and opened.
An elector who has applied to vote by special ballot, whether by mail or at an Elections Canada service point, has their name struck from the voters list used at their designated advance and election day polls, and may not vote at these polls.
If an elector with their name struck from the list as having requested a special ballot insists that they have not, in fact, done so, they may complete a form and sign a declaration attesting that they have not previously asked for a special ballot, and be allowed to vote in person. This form can be compared to records held by Elections Canada to identify and prosecute electors who have made a false declaration.
Special ballots cast by absentee electors (persons voting on Canadian Forces bases, incarcerated persons and Canadians abroad) and by electors voting from outside their electoral district are counted at the Special Voting Rules office in Ottawa, where the results are tallied by candidate, by electoral district. Results are disseminated to local offices, where they are added to the votes counted at the polling stations and at the RO office. During the last general election, there were 263,000 ballots counted in Ottawa.
Special ballots cast by local electors are counted at the local RO office. At the 2019 general election, there were 397,000 ballots counted at local RO offices on election night.
Considerations around voting by special ballot during a pandemic: Challenges and solutions
At the 43rd general election in 2019, 3.5% of all voters cast a special ballot. Of those, just 0.3% cast their special ballot by mail. Electors voting by special ballot within their electoral district did so mostly through in-person transactions at EC offices and points of service. In rare cases, they voted by mail; this amounted to approximately 5,000 votes.
Elector surveys show that between 20% and 25% of Canadians would rather vote by mail. Based on figures from the last general election, this may represent up to 5 million electors.
It is estimated that 16% of voters in the 2020 New Brunswick provincial election voted by mail.
If these forecasts hold true, the mail traffic generated by voting by mail will reach unprecedented levels in federal elections – up to 10 million mail transactions between the electors and Elections Canada. Accordingly, Elections Canada has been working with the Canada Post Corporation on a new business model that would include having the elector mail their ballot back free of charge within Canada.
During the 43rd general election, there were 397,000 ballots counted at local offices on election night. The projection is that local offices would have to count up to 5 million ballots on election night and in the days following the next general election.
Elections Canada is developing a new system and new process capacity to serve up to 5 million electors who are expected to ask to vote by mail, from their home, during a general election held during the pandemic.
Key capacity-building measures include:
Augmenting local office capacity to receive requests and issue special ballot voting kits by increasing the number of computers and staff.
Developing and testing an online application system available to all electors, not just absentee voters, which will automate labour-intensive activities such as data capture and identification document verification.
Local mail-in ballots would continue to be counted at local offices and mail-in ballots from electors voting outside their electoral districts or internationally would continue to be counted at Elections Canada headquarters.
It is important to note that the automation of labour-intensive activities at the local Elections Canada offices will have been completed, tested and readied for an election in early spring 2021.
The projected increased volume of mail-in ballots will delay the reporting of preliminary results for special ballots. Other preliminary results (advance polls and polling day) will be available on election night.