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

2. Delivering the Election

Canada's electoral system is the product of an almost 150-year evolution, through which Canadians have achieved a universal, now constitutionally guaranteed, right to vote. Representation in the House of Commons is based on geographical divisions known as electoral districts, calculated by province and territory. Each electoral district is divided into polling divisions containing some 350 electors. In line with the redistribution of federal electoral boundaries, completed in fall 2013, the number of seats in the House of Commons rose to 338 for the 2015 federal election.

Since May 2007, the CEA provides for a general election to be held on a fixed date: the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following the previous general election. As the last general election took place on October 19, 2015, the next fixed election date is October 21, 2019. That said, the CEA does not prevent a general election from being called at another date.

A general election occurs when the Governor General dissolves Parliament at the request of the Prime Minister; the Governor General, acting on the advice of Cabinet, then sets the date of the election and the date by which the writs must be returned. By law, the time that elapses between the issue of the writs and election day must be a minimum of 37 days, including election day. There is currently no maximum length of time; for example, the 2015 general election was called on August 2, 2015, creating a 79-day election period.

2.1 Planning and Readiness

A federal general election is a massive operation whose success rests on the timely mobilization and deployment of human, material and technological resources in diverse environments across Canada.

The strategic planning process begins well before a general election—in fact, at the conclusion of the previous election. Elections Canada performs ongoing scans of its environment to assess changes in Canadian society and the agency's operating context. Using different types of research, and drawing on the experience of electors, poll workers and candidates, the agency can measure the success of its various initiatives and the progress it has made against its longer-term plans.

In the months following a general election, Elections Canada consults key stakeholders, such as political parties and groups of electors, to gather feedback that may help the agency establish its strategic direction for the next general election and recommend legislative improvements.

Specific improvement initiatives are then identified, made subject to formal business cases and, following a positive review, approved and funded. For the 43rd general election, these initiatives are grouped under the corporate priorities of electoral reform, electoral modernization and asset renewal.

As new initiatives are progressively integrated into the agency's election delivery programs, Elections Canada begins assembling the resources (people, supplies, equipment and information) required to prepare for and deliver a general election. This "ramp-up" process is referred to as election readiness. In March 2019, Elections Canada will put itself and its field staff in a state of election readiness leading up to the 43rd general election. Election readiness involves such things as:

  • Conducting preparatory field work, including validating the new electoral maps (polling divisions), selecting over 17,000 polling places and ensuring that the places meet accessibility standards.
  • Reviewing, reprinting and restocking election supplies and manuals for election workers.

2.2 The Logistics of an Election

Elections Canada prepares and delivers a suite of services to electors and candidates from some 17,000 polling places across Canada during general elections. It also uses a network of 500 local offices (including satellite offices in large, sparsely populated districts), which operate during the writ period and on election day.

In every electoral district, a returning officer is responsible for the local administration of the election. Elections Canada provides them with policies, procedures, operational data and technology. Returning officers rent offices, make arrangements for polling places, hire and train staff—up to 30 in a typical office—and serve electors and candidates under the general direction and supervision of the CEO. By election day, each returning officer has recruited and trained an average of 700 election workers.

When returning officers select polling places, they must carefully balance accessibility, proximity and familiarity to electors. In 2010, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered Elections Canada to cease renting facilities that were not barrier-free. In many parts of the country, this can be achieved only at the expense of proximity and familiarity.

Voter registration services

Since 1997, Elections Canada has maintained the National Register of Electors. This is a digital directory containing the name, address, gender and birthdate of Canadians who are eligible to vote; it is updated periodically through information-sharing agreements with various federal and provincial agencies and departments. The Register is used to create the preliminary lists of electors when an election writ is issued. Electors whose names are on the preliminary list of electors at their current address receive the voter information card (VIC), giving them the address of their polling station.

Otherwise, when an election is called, electors have about four weeks to register or update their registration. Returning officers also update the lists of electors for their electoral district during the revision period. Targeted revision is conducted in specific areas, including high-mobility areas, new developments, areas with low demographic coverage, shelters and long-term care facilities. Introduced in April 2012 and updated in time for the 2015 general election, the agency's Online Voter Registration Service allows electors to check if they are registered, update existing registration information, or register for the first time with the use of their driver's licence number. Otherwise, they can register on election day at their polling station.

Voting services

When designing services for electors, Elections Canada must account for the social, demographic and geographic diversity that returning officers face, and it must adapt its service delivery without compromising its compliance with the CEA.

Canadians can vote using three methods:

(1) at a polling station on election day: An elector can vote only at the polling station set up for his or her polling division. In densely populated urban settings, many polling stations are usually grouped into a central polling place.

(2) at an advance polling station on the second weekend before election day (some 3,674,000 electors chose this option in 2015): For advance voting purposes, polling divisions are grouped into advance voting districts. Each district has an advance polling station assigned to it. Once again, an elector can vote only at the advance polling station assigned to his or her polling division.

(3) by special ballot, at any time during the election, either in person at a local returning office or by mailing their ballot to Elections Canada in Ottawa. The CEA also has special provisions for Canadian Forces electors and electors who temporarily reside abroad or are incarcerated to vote by special ballot. In total, approximately 600,000 electors voted by special ballot in the 2015 general election.

In exceptional circumstances, Elections Canada has allowed returning officers to deploy special ballot kiosks in designated areas for electors to register and vote at for a certain length of time during the writ period. These locations have traditionally included work camps in the north and acute care hospitals. For the 2015 general election, Elections Canada also allowed special ballot voting kiosks in some 40 post-secondary educational institutions across the country.

The CEO appoints a Special Voting Rules Administrator (SVRA), who is responsible for the administration of special ballot voting services for absentee voters and Canadian Forces, incarcerated and expatriate electors. Located in Ottawa, the SVRA's office issues and receives mail-in ballots during the election and coordinates with the Canadian Forces, Global Affairs Canada and provincial correctional departments. On election night, ballots are counted and results are sent to each returning officer for addition to the results gathered from the polling stations.

Communication campaign

When an election is called, Elections Canada launches a comprehensive multimedia communication campaign known as the Electoral Reminder Program to inform electors about when, where and ways to register and vote. It provides information to both the general population of electors and the specific groups of electors who may face barriers to voting such as Indigenous people, youth, ethnic communities and seniors. For the 2015 general election, the communication channels included a new, election-specific website, a multimedia advertising campaign, digital and print information products, direct mail, social media, and national and local outreach. The Electoral Reminder Program is also supported, on the ground and across the country, by regional media advisors. They work with the media relations team at Elections Canada headquarters and alongside field administrators to respond to regional and local media requests.

For the 2015 general election, a network of community relations officers (CROs) was once again recruited to conduct local outreach activities with target groups. CROs interact directly with electors in electoral districts where significant segments of the population experience barriers to the electoral process. They are responsible for promoting the Online Voter Registration Service; providing basic election information, with specific emphasis on the voter identification requirements; and supporting the use of the Letter of Confirmation of Residence, as appropriate.

Reporting results

Following the close of polls, the ballots are counted in the polling stations by the deputy returning officer in the presence of the poll clerk and observed by the candidates or their representatives or, if none are present, at least two electors. The outcome of the election is known within a few hours of the close of polls. On election night, preliminary results are published on the Elections Canada website and shared with a media consortium for live broadcast.

2.3 Post-Election Activities

Validation of the results

The validation of the results is conducted by the returning officer, generally in the week following election day. The returning officer verifies the tabulation of the individual and total results recorded and reported by the Statement of the Vote for each poll.

The CEO has no authority to correct or otherwise alter results that have been validated by a returning officer. The only review mechanisms allowed for validated results are a judicial recount and a contested election application.

Judicial recounts

A judicial recount is a new tabulation of the votes cast for an electoral district, presided over by a judge of a superior court of the province or territory. A judicial recount must take place if the leading candidates in an electoral district receive the same number of votes after the validation of the results or if they are separated by less than one one-thousandth of the total votes cast. It can also be requested by any elector if there is evidence of an error in the original count. Following the 2015 general election, out of 338 electoral districts, there were five judicial recounts, all of which confirmed the initial results; none of them were automatic recounts.

Judicial recounts deal solely with the counting and tabulation of votes.

Contested elections

All concerns respecting the regularity of an election—other than matters that are handled through judicial recounts—are addressed through the contested election process. This includes concerns about fraud or irregularities in the electoral process. After a person is declared elected, any elector who was eligible to vote in an electoral district, or any candidate in that district, may bring an application for a contested election before a judge. In a contested election proceeding, a judge is required to determine whether the person who won the election was eligible to be a candidate or whether there were any other irregularities, fraud or corrupt or illegal practices that affected the result of the election. The CEO, the Attorney General, the respective returning officer, the candidates in the election and the person bringing the application are all parties to a contested election proceeding. At the end of the court proceeding, the judge either dismisses the application or invalidates the result of the election. This decision can be appealed directly to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Mandatory independent audit

In 2014, Bill C-23 introduced the requirement for a mandatory independent audit to be carried out for each general election and by-election to report on whether the deputy returning officers, poll clerks and registration officers properly exercised their powers and performed specific duties and functions. Those duties include validating elector documents stating identity and residence, registering electors on polling day, administering attestations of residence by an attesting elector who lives in the same polling division in the same electoral district, and record keeping.

In preparation for the 2015 general election, the CEO commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to conduct the independent audit. The conclusions of the audit were presented to Parliament in September 2016 as an appendix to the Retrospective Report on the 42nd General Election of October 19, 2015.

Accounting for the Election

The CEO published three reports to provide a comprehensive perspective on the 2015 general election.

  • Report on the 42nd General Election of October 19, 2015: The first in the series, which the CEA requires is a factual chronology of the election. It includes an explanation of the evolution of the federal electoral framework since the 2011 general election, the integration of amendments to the CEA into the preparations for the 2015 election and basic information on the election results.
  • Retrospective Report on the 42nd General Election of October 19, 2015: The second report, released in September 2016, presents a retrospective of the election. It includes an overview of the experiences of electors (including their experience with the voter identification requirements) and political entities. The report also includes observations about electoral administration challenges, electoral integrity and compliance at the polls. It is complemented by two annexes: the Overview of Public Opinion Research Studies and the Audit of Poll Workers' Performance.
  • An Electoral Framework for the 21st Century: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the 42nd General Election: The third and final report, tabled in Parliament in September 2016, presents the CEO's recommendations for improving Canada's electoral framework. This report is made under s. 535 of the CEA, which provides that, after a general election, the CEO shall set out any recommendations on amendments that are, in his or her view, desirable for the better administration of the CEA. The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs' review of the report is ongoing.

The case for modernizing voting services

The way in which the vote is administered in Canada has largely remained unchanged since the secret ballot was introduced in 1874, despite considerable social and technological evolution. The process is entirely paper-based and relies on the work of almost 300,000 Canadians, recruited days before polling day with limited opportunity for training. Combined with increasingly complex record-keeping requirements, the system is naturally labour-intensive and error-prone. At the same time, the rigidity of the legal framework means that services cannot be adapted to local realities or the fluctuation of service demands across the various advance and ordinary polling days. This results in unnecessary wait times for electors and difficult working conditions for poll workers.

Elections Canada, along with provincial jurisdictions, is proposing a new and more flexible service model that leverages basic technology to reduce wait times and administrative errors.