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Delivering the ElectionOverview of Elections Canada and the Federal Electoral System Briefing Book (October 2021)

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 September 20, 2021, the next fixed election date is October 20, 2025. That said, the CEA does not prevent a general election from being called on another date.

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. 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 for up to 18,000 polling stations across Canada. It also relies on a network of about 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 a voter information card (VIC), giving them the address of their polling station.

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 using their driver's licence number. Or, 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 4,840,300 electors chose this option in 2019, and 5,895,000 in 2021.) 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.
  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 1,068,000 electors voted by special ballot in the 2021 general election.

To remove barriers to voting, Elections Canada allows returning officers to open additional service points in locations where electors are unable to vote using traditional voting options or to increase accessibility. For example, additional service points may be set up for electors working in isolated areas, such as mining and oil field camps or lighthouses, or for electors who find themselves in exceptional circumstances, such as being displaced from their homes because of a severe weather event during an election. For the 2019 general election, Elections Canada set up special ballot voting kiosks in 115 post-secondary educational institutions across the country. The agency also accommodated electors observing Jewish holidays by setting up 27 special voting kiosks (open to all electors) for one to four days in 15 electoral districts.

The CEO appoints a Special Voting Rules Administrator (SVRA), who is responsible for the administration of special ballot voting services for electors who live abroad, serve in the Canadian Forces or are incarcerated, as well as for certain electors residing in Canada. The SVRA's office issues and receives special ballots during the election and coordinates with the Canadian Armed Forces, Global Affairs Canada and provincial and federal correctional departments. On election night, special ballots are counted and the results are sent to each returning officer to be added to the results from the polling stations.

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.

The national campaign, delivered through a series of products that have a consistent look and feel and messages, 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.

Finally, since 2015, community relations officers (CROs) have been recruited during each general election. 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 facilities, electors from ethnocultural communities and electors who are homeless. CROs educate electors about where, when and the ways to vote and inform them about the tools and services available to them. The program includes 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. This process is observed by the candidates or their representatives or, if none are present, at least two electors. 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 votes for each candidate and the totals recorded on the Statement of the Vote for each polling station.

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

Following the 2019 general election, judicial recounts were held in 3 of 338 electoral districts. All of them confirmed the initial results; none of them were automatic recounts.

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.