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Free and Fair Elections

Making elections "free and fair" goes beyond the mandate of an electoral management body like Elections Canada. There are several components of an election that is both free and fair, including:

  • freedom of expression and information
  • freedom of association and assembly
  • establishing impartial electoral boundaries
  • selecting polling locations in an independent and non-partisan manner
  • non-intervention by the state in the electoral process
  • the absence of any undue intimidation or pressure on voters, candidates and election officials

While not all of these fall explicitly under Elections Canada's mandate, some things are within our control. For example:

  • producing a legible ballot
  • making sure that those who are eligible to vote can register and vote
  • publishing election results in a timely and transparent manner
  • swiftly addressing election complaints

For an election to be free and fair, there need to be mechanisms in place to detect and address cases of non-compliant behaviour and irregularities. In Canada, Elections Canada conducts financial audits of electoral participants (candidates, political parties and third parties). The Commissioner of Canada Elections, the independent officer responsible for enforcing the Canada Elections Act, can investigate and sanction those who have broken election law. In Canada, it is also possible to ask for a judicial recount or to contest an election if it is alleged that there has been fraud or an other irregularity that may have affected the outcomes of an election.

When applying internationally accepted criteria to assess whether an election is free and fair, most elections in the world fall somewhere along a spectrum. The following table, found in Michael Krennerich's 2021 book, Free and Fair Elections?, identifies the main criteria to evaluate.

Before election day
Free Fair
  • Freedom of information and expression
  • Freedom of assembly
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of movement
  • Universal right to vote and stand for election
  • General registration of persons entitled to vote
  • Free registration of parties and candidates
  • No preferential treatment or discrimination of electoral opponents in the electoral law
  • Independent, transparent and neutral election administration
  • Impartial constituency boundaries
  • Impartial election information
  • Impartial registration of voters
  • Impartial registration of parties and candidates
  • Neutrality of public authorities towards candidates and parties
  • Equal access to public media for candidates and parties
  • Equal access for voters to political and election-related information
  • No abuse of state resources for election campaign purposes
  • Impartial and transparent party and campaign financing
On election day
Free Fair
  • Possibility for all eligible voters to actually participate in the elections
  • Secret ballot
  • No undue influence on or intimidation of voters
  • Peaceful election climate
  • Possibility to observe elections
  • Clear and neutral design of the ballot papers
  • Neutral assistance of voters if necessary Correct and transparent determination, aggregation, documentation and publication of the election results
  • Secure transport of voting material (ballot papers, ballot boxes etc.)
After election day
Free Fair
  • Legal and actual possibilities for complaints regarding electoral irregularities, manipulation and fraud
  • Impartial and rapid investigation of election complaints
  • Complete and detailed publication of the official election results
  • Investigation and sanctioning of electoral law infringements

Source: Michael Krennerich, Free and Fair Elections? Standards, Curiosities, Manipulations, 2021.

Federal elections in Canada are free and fair, as reflected in Canada's status of "free" on Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2023 index, and Canada is rated "very high" on the global Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index. 1 Moreover, the Election Expert Team assembled by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to observe the 2021 Canadian federal election stated that the "election administration, which enjoys a high level of independence, organized the election impartially and transparently" and that "interlocutors expressed a high degree of trust in the integrity of Elections Canada."

Elections Canada's Electoral Integrity Framework

While Elections Canada is not solely responsible for making sure that an election is free and fair, the agency is responsible for administering the electoral process in a trustworthy manner and in accordance with the Canada Elections Act, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other applicable legislation. In order to do this, Elections Canada has developed an Electoral Integrity Framework that helps achieve the agency's strategic vision of an electoral democracy that serves all Canadians and that Canadians can trust.

The framework defines six electoral integrity principles against which Elections Canada's programs and services can be measured, and that are consistent with the provisions of the Act. They are accessibility, fairness, independence, reliability, security and transparency.

Elections Canada's Electoral Integrity Framework logo

Similar to free and fair elections criteria, there are several elements that enhance or reduce electoral integrity and are fundamental to the public's trust (or mistrust) in elections. Electoral integrity, like free and fair elections, is a systemic concept. In any election, various elements contribute to enhancing or reducing electoral integrity. For instance, measures that allow electors who have been evacuated from their community because of floods or wildfires to vote contribute to electoral integrity by ensuring inclusiveness. Measures to check for possible double votes or to encourage observations of the count also support the integrity of the process. Conversely, the failure of poll workers to apply voting procedures consistently, misleading information about the voting process and violations of spending limits by candidates or parties diminish electoral integrity. The overall integrity of an election depends on various factors, behaviours and events, and it is seldom possible to link or demonstrate the impact of one of these factors on a particular electoral outcome.

Threats to Canadian elections

Threats to Canadian elections come in many different forms and target different stakeholders, including Elections Canada, election workers, electors, political entities and other organizations. Even in an election that is free and fair, the principles of the Electoral Integrity Framework can be affected by threats such as cyberattacks, disinformation and influence campaigns, and threats against physical security. Even if a threat does not impact the results of an election, it still can undermine trust in the electoral process.

Informing Canadians about the electoral process and addressing inaccurate information

Elections Canada has a mandate to make sure that Canadians have access to accurate information about the electoral process. Our goal is to be the authoritative source of information about federal elections by reaching Canadians where they are through proactive and responsive communication. We do this by:

  • Delivering a comprehensive Voter Information Campaign during elections, to position Elections Canada as the authoritative source of information about when, where and the ways to register and vote.
  • Detecting inaccurate narratives and assessing potential impacts.
  • Maintaining and updating ElectoFacts, Elections Canada's tool for electors to easily check whether the information they have seen online about the electoral process is accurate.
  • Working with educators and civil society groups to offer educational programming to give voters and future voters the knowledge, understanding, interest and skills they need to participate in the electoral process.

Footnote

1 Garnett, Holly Ann, Toby S. James, Madison MacGregor, and Sofia Caal-Lam, The Electoral Integrity Project, Year in Elections Global Report, 2023.