open Secondary menu

Briefing Book for the Minister of Democratic Institutions (January 2017)

1. The Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada

1.1 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. The CEA covers a broad variety of rules, including, but not limited to, the appointment and duties of election staff; 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 has been amended periodically since 2000. In 2014, the Fair Elections Act (Bill C-23) made significant changes to various aspects of our electoral framework, some of which will be highlighted in this briefing book.

Further proposals to amend the CEA are contained in Bill C-33, tabled in the House of Commons by the Minister of Democratic Reform on November 24, 2016. This bill proposes to repeal certain changes introduced in Bill C-23, and also addresses new issues such as the pre-registration of youth and the expansion of voting rights for Canadians living abroad.

1.2 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 position of the CEO is currently vacant following the retirement of Marc Mayrand on December 28, 2016. The CEO is appointed by resolution of the House of Commons, which has traditionally been unanimous. Until a new CEO is appointed, Mr. Stéphane Perrault is the acting CEO.

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 his or her planned spending and expenditures. He or she also makes recommendations to Parliament on legislative changes that he or she considers beneficial. The CEO communicates with the government through the designated minister responsible for the CEA—currently the Minister of Democratic Institutions.

The CEO appears regularly before the House committees responsible for electoral matters—namely, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in the House of Commons. He or she also appears 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.

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

1.3 Elections Canada's Key Responsibilities

Elections Canada's duties cover both operational and regulatory matters.

Operational matters

  • Administering federal electoral legislation.
  • Exercising general direction and supervision over the conduct of elections and referendums.
  • Maintaining the National Register of 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 electors about when, where and ways to register and vote, and how to prove their identity and address.
  • Conducting public education and information programs on the electoral process for students at the primary and secondary levels.
  • Carrying out studies on voting, including studies respecting alternative voting means, and devising and testing electronic 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 matters

  • 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 engaged in election advertising, 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.
  • Examining and 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.
  • Reimbursing election expenses to candidates and political parties according to formulas laid out in the CEA.

1.4 Funding and Accountability of the Chief Electoral Officer

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

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

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 his or her independence or ability to carry out his or her mandate.

1.5 Elections Canada's Size and Governance

The Office through which the CEO carries out his or her mandate (Elections Canada) normally includes some 500 employees working in the National Capital Region. This number rises to approximately 1,200 in the lead-up to and following a general election.

For each of the 338 electoral districts, he appoints a returning officer on the basis of merit for a renewable term of 10 years. He also hires and trains 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 worker 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 must first turn to names provided by candidates of the registered political parties.

The CEO appoints the Broadcasting Arbitrator to allocate paid and free broadcasting time to the political parties and to resolve disputes about the purchase of advertising time during an election. The current Broadcasting Arbitrator is Mr. Peter S. Grant.

In the fall of 2013, the Elections Canada Advisory Board was established to provide advice to the CEO on matters relating to Canada's electoral system and its voting processes and to support a vigorous democracy that reflects the evolving needs and circumstances of Canadians. The mandate of the Advisory Board is to study and provide advice on such matters as the conduct of elections, electoral participation by both electors and political participants, regulatory compliance and electoral reform. The Advisory Board currently has 11 members, including two co-chairs: the Honourable Ian Binnie, former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada; and Sheila Fraser, former Auditor General of Canada.

1.6 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 of the 17 registered political parties in Canada, is a forum for information, consultation and advice on federal electoral matters. Although its title and purpose were formalized by Bill C-23 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 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 the 2015 federal election. The group also helped to identify the best ways to inform people with disabilities about when, where and ways to register and vote. The AGDI's work builds on consultations held in 20112012 with 19 organizations representing people with disabilities. It also complements Elections Canada's research on voting barriers faced by Canadians with disabilities.

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 outreach

As a result of changes introduced in the Fair Elections Act, Elections Canada's civic education mandate has been restricted to Canadians who have not reached voting age. According to the CEA, the CEO "may implement public education and information programs to make the electoral process better known to students at the primary and secondary levels."

Elections Canada fulfills this mandate by offering tools to help educators teach young people about democracy, government, electoral systems, civic engagement and active citizenship. By providing free resources and activities, Elections Canada seeks to ensure that teachers and students have sustained access to learning opportunities outside of the election cycle. Elections Canada also works with a variety of civic education and youth civic engagement organizations to give elementary and high school students access to participatory and experiential programming inside and outside the classroom. Elections Canada staff is currently renewing its civic education program for students under 18 years of age.

Should Bill C-33 become law, the CEO would be able to provide information and education programs to the public at large on a wider range of topics, including why it is important to vote. Elections Canada's intention is to resume some of its civic engagement and education activities with a particular focus on first-time voters, in collaboration with a wide variety of civic organizations. Bill C-33 would also allow Elections Canada to create a register of future electors, which would create new opportunities for proactive civic education.

Under the current CEA, the CEO may provide electors with information on where, when and ways to vote. Elections Canada uses research to establish target groups of electors who face barriers to the electoral system. These groups include youth, Indigenous electors, electors from ethnocultural communities (new Canadians), electors with disabilities, seniors in long-term care and electors who are homeless. Through the Electoral Reminder Program, Elections Canada engages with these groups to find the best ways to tell electors about when, where and ways to register and vote and how to prove their identity and address. For the 2015 general election, the agency also established partnerships with over 50 national and regional organizations serving its target groups of electors. Through formal contracts and verbal agreements, these organizations disseminated Elections Canada's information products electronically or through in-person briefings before and during the general election. These organizations also promoted the agency's online voter registration service in their pre-election communications and events.

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, which is composed of provincial and territorial CEOs. Elections Canada maintains data-sharing agreements with all Canadian provinces and territories; it regularly receives updates to the National Register of Electors from these sources, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, and transmits its data to the provinces and territories. 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

Elections Canada is a member of various international networks of electoral management bodies (EMBs) and participates in international forums that promote valuable exchange of information and expertise sharing on different aspects of electoral administration.

With a recently-legislated mandate to provide international assistance and co-operation to foreign EMBs, Elections Canada will be able to build on its strong reputation as a mature EMB to support and contribute to Canada's international efforts in advancing democracy.