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

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 from 308 to 338.

Canada's electoral system is referred to as a "single-member plurality" system (commonly called a "first-past-the-post" system). In every electoral district, the candidate with the highest number of votes wins a seat in the House of Commons and represents that electoral district as its member of Parliament. An absolute majority (more than 50 percent of the votes in the electoral district) is not required for a candidate to be elected.

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 21, 2019, the next fixed election date is October 16, 2023. That said, the CEA does not prevent a general election from being called on 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 election must be held for at least 36 days, but no more than 50 days, after the issue of the writs.

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 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.

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. Since March 2019, Elections Canada has 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 polling stations and ensuring that the stations meet accessibility standards; and
  • reviewing, reprinting and restocking election supplies and manuals for election workers.

The Logistics of an Election

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

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 stations, 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 stations, 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 receive the voter information card (VIC), giving them the address of their polling station.

Otherwise, when an election is called, electors have several options for registering or updating 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. The agency's Online Voter Registration Service allows electors to check if they are registered, update existing address information, or register for the first time with the use of their driver's licence number. Otherwise, they can register at any returning office or at their polling station.

Voting services

In Canada, votes are cast by paper ballot, completed by hand by the elector.

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 their polling division. In densely populated urban settings, many polling stations are usually grouped into a central location;
  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 their polling division; or
  3. by special ballot during the election period, either in person at a local returning office or by mailing their ballot to Elections Canada. The CEA also has special provisions for Canadian Forces electors, electors who reside abroad and electors who 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 election period. These locations have traditionally included work camps in the north and acute care hospitals. For the 2019 general election, Elections Canada installed special ballot voting kiosks in 115 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 electors who are living temporarily abroad, in the Canadian Forces, or incarcerated, as well as certain electors residing in Canada and voting by special ballot. The SVRA's office issues and receives mail-in ballots during the election and coordinates with Canadian Forces, Global Affairs Canada and provincial and federal correctional departments. On election night, ballots are counted and results are sent to each returning officer to be added to the results from the polling stations.

The Elections Modernization Act proposes a new, more flexible, voting services model intended to reduce wait times and administrative errors. In addition to new measures to enhance the efficiency of the voting process at advance polling stations, this law provides greater flexibility in how and where electors are served. In the future, polling stations may be able to serve multiple polling divisions during an ordinary poll (also known as election day), and electors may be able to vote at any table within a polling station. This amendment will ensure more efficient operations at the busiest polling stations and at peak times.

Generally, the same tasks as before will be performed at the polls (whether on paper or electronically); however, polling station workers will be able to shift roles as needed. For example, workers will be able to rotate among service points for breaks during the long workday or shift from verifying ID, issuing ballots and record-keeping at a voting table to assisting with polling station registration processes in order to clear a bottleneck at registration tables.

Voter Information Campaign

To ensure that Canadians can exercise their democratic right to vote, Elections Canada conducts a Voter Information Campaign before and during federal elections to provide Canadians with all the information they need on where, when and the ways to register and vote in a general election.

The national campaign, delivered through a series of products with consistent messages and look and feel, primarily targets the general population and groups who face higher than average barriers to participating in elections: new voters (youth and new Canadian citizens), Indigenous electors and electors with disabilities.

For the first time, in 2019 Elections Canada launched its Voter Information Campaign prior to the election call (pre-election campaign) to increase awareness of the upcoming general election, position itself as the official source of information on the electoral process, and encourage eligible Canadians to register to vote in and work at the federal election. Similar to the national campaign, the pre-election campaign targeted the general population with a focus on new voters and other priority groups with lower electoral participation rates.

For the 2019 general election, a network of community relations officers (CROs) was once again recruited. CROs work with local leaders to improve access to registration and voting for specific groups of electors, particularly youth, Indigenous electors, seniors in long-term care, electors from ethnocultural communities and electors who are homeless. CROs educate electors about where, when and the ways to vote and inform them about tools and services available to them. For the 2019 election, the program included outreach activities in Métis communities and official language minority communities.

Reporting results

Following the close of polls, the ballots are manually counted in the polling stations by an election officer assigned to the polling station in the presence of another election officer 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.

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, judicial recounts were held in 5 of 338 electoral districts, consistent with usual recount rates. All of these confirmed the initial results; none of them were automatic recounts.

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

Contested elections

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 practice, legal contestations are quite rare. 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, the requirement was introduced for a mandatory independent audit to be carried out for each general election and by-election to report on whether election officers properly exercised their duties under the CEA.

Accounting for the Election

Under the CEA, the CEO must publish three reports to provide a comprehensive perspective on a general election.

  • Report on the election results: The first in the series is a factual chronology of the election. It includes an explanation of the evolution of the federal electoral framework since the previous general election, the integration of amendments to the CEA into the preparations for the election, and basic information on the election results.
  • Retrospective report on the election: The second report 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.
  • Recommendations report: The third and final report 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 their view, desirable for the better administration of the CEA.

Redistribution of Federal Electoral Districts

The Constitution of Canada requires that federal electoral districts be reviewed after each decennial census to reflect changes and movements in Canada's population. The next decennial census is scheduled to take place in 2021 and the redistribution process should start in early 2022. The redistribution process is led by independent commissions working separately in each province to establish electoral boundaries. Commissions are not required for Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon since each territory is a single electoral district.

The CEO plays a number of roles in the federal redistribution process as provided in the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (EBRA). During the process, the CEO must:

  • calculate the number of House of Commons seats allocated to each province using the population estimates supplied by Statistics Canada and the formula set out in the Constitution;
  • provide each commission with the census population numbers and maps showing the distribution of the population in the province;
  • provide administrative and technical support to the commissions (for example: help commissioners establish offices, provide mapping resources);
  • prepare, in collaboration with Natural Resources Canada, paper and electronic maps of all electoral districts as described in the commissions' reports and the finalized maps once redistribution is completed;
  • process payment of all expenses related to the redistribution process; and
  • act as a conduit between Parliament and the electoral boundaries commissions.

The CEO does not decide where and how House of Commons seats are distributed within the provinces. That is solely the responsibility of the electoral boundaries commissions. Upon completion of the redistribution process by all ten electoral boundaries commissions, the EBRA requires the CEO to prepare, in accordance with the recommendations contained in the commissions' reports, a draft representation order dividing each of the provinces into electoral districts and describing the boundaries of each such district.

The CEO transmits the draft representation order to the Minister. The EBRA provides that the Governor in Council shall, by proclamation issued within five days after the day on which the Minister receives the representation order from the CEO, declare the representation order to be in force. The new electoral districts become effective on the first dissolution of Parliament that occurs at least seven months after the day on which that proclamation was issued.