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The Electoral System of Canada

Appendix 1: Evolution of the Federal Electoral System

What are the milestones in the history of the Canadian electoral system?

The following is an overview of selected key dates and important milestones in the evolution of the federal electoral system. Please consult A History of the Vote in Canada (second edition, available at for a much more detailed analysis, including a timeline of historical events starting in the early years of the colonial era.

1867 In the first general election after Confederation in 1867, only a small minority of the population, composed largely of male British subjects with real property of a certain value, can vote in a country that has just four provinces, represented by 181 members of Parliament.
1874 The Dominion Elections Act brings in the use of the secret ballot and the practice of holding a general election on the same day in all electoral districts. Candidates are required to report their election expenses, but no enforcement mechanisms are provided.
1885 Parliament draws up a complicated federal franchise based on property ownership. The rules differ from town to town and from province to province.
1898 The Government returns control of the right to vote in federal elections to the provinces.
1908 Direct contributions from corporations to candidates are prohibited, but since the law does not recognize political parties, and without any requirements to disclose the source of political contributions, this principle remains unenforceable.
1915 The right to vote is granted to military personnel on active service. The First World War brings other important changes to the federal franchise.
1917 Parliament once more takes over responsibility for preparing the voters lists, through the War-time Elections Act and the Military Voters Act. The right to vote is extended to all British subjects, women and men, who are active or retired members of the armed forces, including persons with Indian status and persons less than 21 years of age, independent of any residency requirement.
1918 The franchise in federal elections is extended to women 21 years of age or over.
1919 Women become eligible for election to the House of Commons.
1920 The Dominion Elections Act restores control of the right to vote in federal elections to the federal government. The Act also creates the office of Chief Electoral Officer of Canada and establishes advance voting for certain categories of voters.

Other legislative changes include a new requirement for candidates to disclose the names of their contributors and the amount of the contributions they receive; candidates' financial officers must submit a report on spending within two months following the day of the vote, and there is a $500 fine for failing to submit it. Returning officers must publish a summary of these reports in local newspapers.

The prohibition on corporations making contributions is extended to all companies and associations, whether or not they are incorporated.
1929 A legislative amendment establishes Monday as federal election day.
1930 The Government of R.B. Bennett introduces a permanent list of electors in an effort to replace enumeration, but abandons the approach after one election as impractical and expensive. The restrictions on contributions from corporations are abandoned.
1948 The last of the property ownership requirements for voting are abolished, and the right to vote is extended to all Canadians of Asian origin.
1950 Inuit people obtain the right to vote.
1955 The last vestiges of religious restrictions on the franchise are abolished.
1960 Status Indians are no longer required to give up their status to vote in federal elections. The right to vote at advance polls is extended to all Canadians absent from their polling divisions on election day.
1964 The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act receives royal assent and entrusts the redistribution of electoral districts to independent boundary commissions. Redistribution remains a 10-year exercise, as set out in the Constitution Act, 1867.
1970 The voting age and the age of candidacy are lowered from 21 to 18 years. Public servants – mainly diplomats – and their dependants posted outside Canada become eligible to use the Special Voting Rules, previously available only to military personnel and their dependants.

Political parties are required to register with the Chief Electoral Officer to obtain the right to have their names printed on the ballot paper under the names of their candidates. To be eligible for registration, political parties must endorse candidates in at least 50 ridings in a general election and present at least 100 signatures of electors who are members of the party.
1974 The Election Expenses Act introduces a comprehensive set of controls over election expenses and financing. The legislation sets spending limits for candidates and requires public disclosure of all contributions exceeding $100 to political parties and candidates. Public funding measures are introduced through partial reimbursement of election expenses, tax credits for political contributions and the allocation of free broadcasting time among political parties. To enforce these provisions, the Act also creates the position of Commissioner of Election Expenses. Third party election advertising is prohibited.
1977 A legislative amendment broadens the mandate of the Commissioner of Election Expenses, who becomes the Commissioner of Canada Elections, responsible for the enforcement of all provisions of the Canada Elections Act.
1982 The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms defines constitutional rights and freedoms, including the freedom of opinion and expression, the right of citizens to vote and be a candidate in a legislative election, and the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. These rights and freedoms are subject only to reasonable limits, prescribed by law, that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
1983 The ban on third party advertising is lifted, but restrictions apply on allowable expenses. With respect to candidate election expenses, every person, other than a candidate or an official agent, who incurs election expenses becomes guilty of an offence under the Canada Elections Act.
1992 The Referendum Act is passed to provide a legal and administrative framework for conducting federal referendums on any question related to the Constitution of Canada.

Parliament passes amendments to the Canada Elections Act to improve access to the electoral process for persons with disabilities. These include requirements for mobile polls at facilities where seniors or persons with disabilities reside; level access at all ordinary polling stations and, where this is not possible, the use of transfer certificates; and a template for use by electors with a visual impairment.
1993 Parliament passes legislation to allow inmates serving sentences of less than two years to vote. The right to vote is also extended to judges and persons with a mental disability.

The Canada Elections Act is also modified to allow Canadians to vote by special ballot if they cannot go to their ordinary or advance polls. The ballot can be used by students away from home, travelling vacationers and business people as well as those temporarily residing outside the country (for less than five years).

Other changes authorize registration at urban polls on election day (previously allowed only for rural voters), shorten the minimum election period from 50 to 47 days and ban the publication and broadcasting of opinion polls during the last three days of a campaign. In addition, a cap of $1,000 is imposed on a third party's election advertising.
1996 Amendments to the Canada Elections Act introduce a permanent register of electors and eliminate door-to-door enumeration for federal general elections, by-elections and referendums. The general election and by-election period is shortened from a minimum of 47 days to 36. Voting hours on election day are staggered and extended so that most of the results are available at approximately the same time across the country.
2000 A new Canada Elections Act modernizes the organization and terminology of electoral legislation. It also introduces new controls on election advertising by third parties.

The new Act prohibits election advertising and the publication of new election opinion-poll results on election day. It also authorizes the Commissioner of Canada Elections to enter into compliance agreements and, where necessary, obtain court injunctions during an election period. The Act also mandates the Chief Electoral Officer to develop and test electronic voting procedures. Third parties are required to register with the Chief Electoral Officer and disclose their election advertising expenses.
2001 Further to a court case, the number of confirmed candidates required for an unregistered political party to be entitled to have its name on the ballot is reduced from 50 to 12.
2004 Legislative amendments bring significant and comprehensive changes to the rules regulating political financing. They introduce limits on political contributions by individuals and, henceforth, prohibit corporations and trade unions from contributing to registered parties or leadership contestants. The expenses of nomination contestants are capped. Registration requirements are extended to leadership contestants and electoral district associations. Financial reporting rules are extended to apply to all electoral district associations, leadership contestants and nomination contestants governed by the Act. Registered political parties that obtain a certain number of valid votes, nationwide or at the riding level, become eligible for quarterly public allowances. Tax credits for political contributions are also augmented.

Subsequently, the law is amended to lower the minimum number of candidates required for party registration from 50 to 1. The new legislation also introduces the first legal definition of a political party, along with a series of new administrative requirements for party registration.
2006 Legislative amendments introduced as part of the Federal Accountability Act further restrict political contributions and make other changes to the Canada Elections Act intended to increase the transparency of the electoral process and better control the influence of money on elections. The Act amends the rules for political contributions, gifts and the use of trust funds, and allows only individuals who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents to make political contributions. It also transfers the process of appointing returning officers from the Governor General, acting on advice of Cabinet, to the Chief Electoral Officer. Returning officers are appointed, based on merit, for a 10-year term. However, if any boundaries of an electoral district change as a result of the redistribution process each decade, a competition is held to appoint a returning officer for the new district.

The Act also brings changes to the prosecution process. First, it changes the deadline within which a prosecution can be initiated, making it no more than 5 years after the Commissioner of Canada Elections became aware of the facts, but in any case no later than 10 years after the day the offence was committed. Second, prosecutions become the responsibility of the newly created Director of Public Prosecutions, while the Commissioner remains the investigative body for alleged offences under the Canada Elections Act.
2007 Legislative amendments introduce the requirement for voters to prove their identity and address before being handed a ballot. Further amendments are also made with respect to electors who have no residential or civic address or no way to prove such an address. Three options are made available to electors, including showing one piece of government-issued identification with a photo, name and address; showing two pieces of authorized identification, both of which must bear the elector's name and one of which must also bear the elector's address; or taking an oath and having another elector, whose name appears on the list of electors in the same polling division and who produces proper pieces of identification, vouch for them. An elector can vouch for only one other elector.

Further legislative amendments also introduce a fixed election date for federal elections. According to that legislation, if an election is not called under the constitutional prerogative of the Governor General or as a result of a government losing the confidence of the House of Commons, a general election must be held on the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following polling day for the previous general election. The 42nd general election, on Monday, October 19, 2015, is the first to be scheduled in accordance with this provision.
2011 Legislative amendments are setput in place to phase out the quarterly per-vote public allowances paid by Elections Canada to registered political parties that attain a certain number of votes, nationwide or at the riding level, in the previous general election. The payments are reduced starting on April 1, 2012, and stop completely as of April 1, 2015.

The Fair Representation Act amends the rules in the Constitution Act, 1867 for readjusting the number of members of the House of Commons and consequently changes the representation of the provinces in that House. The application of the new formula adds seats in the three provinces with the fastest-growing populations. It gives Ontario 15 more seats, while British Columbia and Alberta are each allotted an additional six. The amendments also include a new "representation rule" that applies in cases where the new calculation method would leave a province under-represented. Such a province's seat allocation is instead increased so that its share of representation will equal its share of the population. As a result, Quebec receives three more seats. The new seat total for all of Canada is 338.

The new Act also shortens the time allotted to conduct the process of readjusting the electoral boundaries. As well, it allows the reappointment of returning officers for a new term in cases where the position becomes vacant because electoral district boundaries are revised.
2014 Significant legislative changes to almost every aspect of the electoral process took effect in the summer and winter of 2014 under Bill C-23, the Fair Elections Act (FEA).

The FEA adds an advance voting day on the second Sunday before election day, resulting in four consecutive days of advance polls. New provisions set out obligations for the Chief Electoral Officer to issue written opinions, guidelines and interpretation notes on the application of the Canada Elections Act to political entities in certain defined circumstances. The FEA also replaces vouching with an attestation process. Electors without proof of address must show two pieces of identification with their name and have an elector in their polling division attest to their address. Legislative amendments specifically prohibit the use of the voter information card as a piece of identification.

The Chief Electoral Officer's mandate to implement public education and information programs is revised to target primary and secondary students only. A defined list of subjects the Chief Electoral Officer may address – namely how, where and when to register and vote or become a candidate – applies when he or she transmits advertising to electors about the exercise of their democratic rights. 

For political financing, among other changes, the reforms result in a new regime for reporting loans and unpaid claims, new loan restrictions in terms of source and amount, a new regime for dealing with applications for extensions of time to file or correct financial returns, reductions in reimbursement payments for overspending, new spending limits for parties and candidates, new contribution limits, greater contribution limits for candidates and leadership contestants to their own campaigns, and restrictions on testamentary dispositions.

Another significant reform is the addition of a new Schedule 4 to the Canada Elections Act contemplating standard rules for conducting recounts. The amendments also make important changes to the enforcement regime by placing the Commissioner of Canada Elections within the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The FEA creates a number of new offences, increases fines, and introduces a registration and data retention regime for voter contact calling services that is partly enforced by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.