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Briefing Book for the President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada (December 2019)

The Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada

Electoral Legislation

Elections Canada is responsible for the administration of the Canada Elections Act (CEA), which governs the election of members of Parliament to the House of Commons, and the Referendum Act. The CEA covers a broad variety of rules, including, but not limited to, the appointment and duties of election officers; how candidates are nominated; the regulation of political financing; voting days, times and locations; voting procedures at the polls and by special ballot; the counting of ballots; voter registration; and a number of offences under the CEA and related penalties for infractions.

The CEA is amended and revised at each electoral cycle. Recently, Parliament adopted the Elections Modernization Act (Bill C-76), which substantially modifies various aspects of the CEA and, as a consequence, makes significant operational changes to how Elections Canada fulfills its mandate. Perhaps the most important of these changes is the relaxing of certain aspects of the highly prescriptive electoral administration model previously in place. A number of these legislative changes will be highlighted in this briefing book.

Three federal referendums have been held in Canada since Confederation: in 1898, on whether to prohibit the sale of alcohol; in 1942, on compulsory military service (conscription); and in 1992, on the Charlottetown constitutional accord. Under the Referendum Act that came into force just before the 1992 referendum, only questions related to the Constitution of Canada can be asked in a federal referendum. Federal referendums and elections cannot be held on the same day. The Referendum Act allows the Chief Electoral Officer to adapt the CEA by regulation to apply it to a referendum.

The Chief Electoral Officer

The Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Canada is an agent of Parliament who is directly responsible to that institution and independent from the government of the day. This independence flows from a range of provisions in the CEA, notably those related to tenure of the position and the specific process for removal of the incumbent, accountability mechanisms and financial independence.

The current CEO, Stéphane Perrault, was appointed on June 8, 2018. The CEO is appointed by resolution of the House of Commons.

The CEO serves a 10-year term and may be removed only for cause by the Governor General on joint address of the Senate and House of Commons.

The CEO reports to Parliament on the administration of a general election, by-election or referendum and on their planned spending and expenditures. They also make recommendations to Parliament on legislative changes that they consider beneficial. The CEO communicates with the government through the designated minister responsible for the CEA—previously the Minister of Democratic Institutions.

The CEO appears regularly before the House committee responsible for electoral matters—namely, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in the House of Commons. They also appear from time to time before the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in the Senate and any other committee upon request.

The CEO also provides technical advice to committees, upon request, on legislation and any other issue a committee is studying.

The other agents of Parliament perform primarily a "watchdog" function in overseeing the actions of the government of the day. The CEO is unique among them in that the mandate of Elections Canada includes a significant operational aspect—managing the delivery of federal elections, by-elections and referendums, and monitoring political entities, rather than the government.

In recent years, the CEO and the other agents of Parliament have worked together to develop a common approach on various matters that impact their independence, such as government policies.

Elections Canada's Key Responsibilities

Elections Canada's duties cover matters relating to both electoral operations and regulatory compliance.

Electoral operations

  • Administering federal electoral legislation
  • Exercising general direction and supervision over the conduct of elections and referendums
  • Maintaining the National Register of Electors and the Register of Future Electors
  • Ensuring that all election officers act with fairness, impartiality and in compliance with the CEA
  • Issuing to election officers the instructions that the CEO considers necessary for the administration of the CEA
  • Adapting any provision of the CEA if the CEO considers that an emergency, an unusual or unforeseen circumstance or an error makes an adaptation necessary, for the sole purpose of enabling electors to exercise their right to vote, or enabling the counting of votes
  • Implementing public education and information programs to inform the general public about the electoral process
  • Educating the public about the Canadian electoral process, the right to vote and the right to run in an election
  • Carrying out studies on voting, including studies respecting alternative voting means, and devising and testing new voting processes for use in a future general election or by election, subject to the approval of House of Commons and Senate committees
  • Providing legal, technical, financial and administrative support to the independent commissions responsible for the periodic process of readjusting federal electoral boundaries to ensure that representation conforms to the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act

Regulatory compliance

  • Issuing written opinions, guidelines and interpretation notes (OGIs) on the application of the CEA to political entities
  • Registering political entities, including political parties, electoral district associations, leadership contestants, nomination contestants of registered parties, as well as third parties, and providing instructions for the nomination of candidates
  • Calculating the amount of election expenses limits for candidates and political parties as well as the expenses limit for nomination contestants
  • Disclosing the financial returns of political entities—including candidates, political parties, electoral district associations, leadership contestants, nomination contestants of registered parties and third parties engaged in election advertising—and verifying their compliance
  • Reimbursing election expenses to candidates and political parties according to formulas laid out in the CEA

Funding and Accountability of the Chief Electoral Officer

Elections Canada is funded by and operates under two separate budget authorities.

The first is an annual parliamentary appropriation that covers the salaries for permanent positions. This appropriation can be increased only with the approval of the Treasury Board.

The second budget authority is a statutory authority that draws directly from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. This authority funds all Elections Canada expenditures other than the salaries for permanent positions and is not subject to annual parliamentary approval. The statutory authority serves to recognize Elections Canada's independence from the government. It also ensures that Elections Canada has access to the funds required for electoral events, which may occur at any time.

The CEO is subject to all federal laws of general application, such as the Access to Information Act, the Official Languages Act, the Public Service Employment Act, the Privacy Act and the Financial Administration Act. Like any other government department or agency, Elections Canada participates in the Estimates process. This includes submitting Main Estimates, the Departmental Plan, the Departmental Results Report and the Quarterly Financial Reports.

In addition, the financial statements of the Office of the CEO are subject to annual audits by the Office of the Auditor General. The agency is also subject to the reporting requirements of the Receiver General, including those related to the Public Accounts.

However, because of Elections Canada's independence from the government and its statutory mandate, the CEO is exempted from a number of Treasury Board policies and directives. Other policies apply to the CEO, but in a manner that does not impede their independence or ability to carry out their mandate.

Elections Canada's Size and Governance

The Office through which the CEO carries out their mandate (Elections Canada) normally includes some 600 employees working in the National Capital Region. This number rises to approximately 1,600 in the lead up to and following a general election.

For each of the 338 electoral districts, the CEO appoints a returning officer on the basis of merit for a renewable term of 10 years. They also hire and train 32 field liaison officers to assist the returning officers. Returning officers are responsible for administering elections within their respective electoral district. They are also responsible for filling upwards of 285,000 specific election officer positions, an average of almost 850 positions in each of the 338 electoral districts. Of these, some 180,000 are staffed for election day. To fill these positions, returning officers may appoint half of the officers needed to deliver the election at the beginning of the election period. For the remaining half, they must consider names provided by candidates of the registered political parties.

The CEO appoints the Broadcasting Arbitrator after consulting with the registered political parties. This person is responsible for allocating paid and free broadcasting time to the political parties and resolving disputes about the purchase of advertising time during an election. The current Broadcasting Arbitrator is Peter S. Grant.

Elections Canada's External Engagement

In delivering its mandate, Elections Canada engages a number of stakeholders, including political entities, provincial and territorial electoral management bodies and specific groups of electors for whom access to the electoral system is a concern.

Advisory Committee of Political Parties

The Advisory Committee of Political Parties (ACPP), chaired by the CEO and consisting of two representatives of each registered political party in Canada, is a forum for information, consultation and advice on federal electoral matters. Although its title and purpose were formalized in June 2014, the ACPP has been meeting regularly since it was created in 1998.

The purpose of the ACPP is to provide the CEO with advice and recommendations relating to the conduct of elections and the administration of the political financing regime. It has two main objectives: first, to foster and maintain an open dialogue and working relationship between Elections Canada and registered political parties in order to gain a better understanding of political parties' operational context, and second, to seek a collaborative approach to developing new initiatives.

The CEO meets formally with the ACPP at least once a year. Members are also consulted regularly throughout the year, through either teleconferences or workshops. A steering committee, which includes members of the ACPP, has also been established to help the agency establish priorities for written opinions, guidelines and interpretation notes (OGIs). The steering committee includes one representative from each party and meets at least once a year, usually during the ACPP's annual general meeting.

Advisory Group for Disability Issues

In February 2014, Elections Canada launched an Advisory Group for Disability Issues (AGDI) to provide subject matter expertise and advice on accessibility initiatives for federal elections. The group also helped to identify the best ways to inform people with disabilities about when, where and ways to register and vote.

AGDI members are leaders of organizations, invited as experts, and they participate in a personal capacity. They are selected based on their cross-disability and policy focus. Elections Canada chairs and serves as a secretariat for the AGDI by convening meetings and targeted consultations on improvements to electoral services.

Civic education and stakeholder mobilization

The Elections Modernization Act expanded the CEO's civic education mandate by restoring powers the position held prior to 2014. The CEO may now provide information and education programs to the public at large on a wide range of topics, including the importance of voting. Until very recently, only elementary and high school students could benefit from such programs. In addition, the Elections Modernization Act now allows Elections Canada to maintain a Register of Future Electors, which creates new opportunities for proactive civic education. This Register enables young people ages 14 to 17 to pre-register to be included in the National Register of Electors in the future.

For over 20 years, Elections Canada has provided educational resources to primary and secondary school teachers. Elections Canada has recently released a new collection of resources as a supplement to proven pedagogical tools in order to better meet current educational needs. These resources were designed to align with curriculum goals and learning skills in all provinces and territories. The redesigned program is intended to support teachers in preparing future electors and encouraging them to participate in electoral democracy.

Elections Canada is also implementing a public education and information program through the Inspire Democracy initiative. This initiative was conceived in order to better understand why some Canadians do not exercise their democratic right to vote. Studies show that certain communities face tangible barriers to participating in elections, whether registering, voting, working at a polling station or running for office in a federal election. The following groups face these barriers most often:

  • First Nations, Inuit and Métis electors;
  • people with disabilities;
  • youth; and
  • new Canadians.

The Inspire Democracy program aims to break down barriers by providing tools designed to spark a dialogue with leaders from these communities and the organizations that represent them.

Relationships with electoral management bodies

Elections Canada works in collaboration with its provincial, territorial and international counterparts to address and discuss a wide array of issues, including governance and accountability, legislative trends, best practices and voter services.

The CEO chairs the Advisory Committee of Electoral Partners (ACEP), which is composed of provincial and territorial CEOs. Elections Canada maintains data-sharing agreements with Canadian provinces and territories, which regularly provide information to update the National Register of Electors. Elections Canada also produces, in consultation with the provinces and territories, the Compendium of Election Administration in Canada. The Compendium offers a comparative analysis of major provisions in Canadian election laws.

International involvement

In accordance with the CEA, Elections Canada has been cooperating with electoral agencies in other countries and international organizations for many years. The goal of its international engagement is to strengthen the independence, impartiality, integrity, transparency and professionalism of electoral management both abroad and in Canada to ensure the conduct of free, fair and inclusive election processes.

Elections Canada actively engages with other electoral management bodies and international electoral organizations to develop and share knowledge on effective electoral management. It strives to be a recognized source of information on electoral administration and improve its own practices by learning from others.