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The Electoral System of Canada

Elections Canada

What is Elections Canada, and how does it work?

Role, Mission and Goals

The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, also called Elections Canada, is an independent agency set up by Parliament to administer all aspects of federal general elections, by-elections and referendums. The mission of Elections Canada is to ensure that Canadians can exercise their democratic right to vote and be a candidate.

Elections Canada's fundamental goals are to be ready to deliver electoral events whenever they may be called, continually improve election delivery and carry out ongoing responsibilities with respect to political financing.

Originally, the Chief Electoral Officer was responsible only for the administration of federal general elections and by-elections. Under the laws that govern federal electoral matters, this mandate has broadened to include the administration of national referendums on constitutional matters and other important aspects of Canada's democratic system, such as overseeing political financing and providing assistance in the redistribution of electoral districts. The Chief Electoral Officer's current responsibilities include:

  • making sure that all electors have access to the electoral process through public education and information programs as well as accessible physical facilities
  • maintaining the National Register of Electors
  • providing technical, financial and administrative support to the independent commissions that periodically readjust electoral district boundaries
  • registering political parties, their electoral district associations, party leadership contestants and third parties
  • administering the legislated controls on the financing sources and election expenses of candidates, nomination contestants, party leadership contestants, registered parties, registered electoral district associations and third parties engaged in election advertising, and examining and disclosing their financial reports, including posting them on the Elections Canada website at
  • reimbursing the election expenses of candidates and parties according to formulas set out in the Canada Elections Act
  • appointing and training returning officers and ensuring that they provide competent and efficient services in administering the electoral process in each electoral district
  • appointing the Broadcasting Arbitrator, who is tasked with allocating broadcasting time among political parties during general elections

In addition to administering the Canada Elections Act, the specific laws under which Elections Canada operates are the Referendum Act and the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. The agency is also subject to all laws that generally apply to federal organizations, including the Constitution Act, 1867; the Constitution Act, 1982 (which includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms); the Financial Administration Act; the Public Service Employment Act; the Privacy Act; the Access to Information Act; the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Official Languages Act.

At present, Elections Canada consists of a core staff of some 500 employees at its offices in Ottawa-Gatineau, but this number expands significantly during a general election. The core staff must be highly qualified to provide a high degree of readiness for an election and oversee the hundreds of tasks that have to be carried out according to a strict timetable during electoral events.

Non-partisan and Independent

A non-partisan electoral management body is the key to an impartial electoral process. Several factors contribute to the independence of the Chief Electoral Officer, including Elections Canada's arm's-length relationship with the Government and the budgetary mechanisms that fund its work. (These are outlined in greater detail later in this section.) The Chief Electoral Officer reports directly to Parliament and is thus completely independent of the Government and political parties.

Running an election involves a large number of election officers – from returning officers, who are responsible for administering an election in each electoral district, to deputy returning officers and poll clerks, who help voters at every ballot box. The Chief Electoral Officer is responsible for ensuring that election officers are politically neutral and non-partisan in all aspects of their work.

Special precautions are taken to ensure that no political bias affects the administration of elections. All election workers must take an oath to uphold voters' rights and the secrecy of the vote and to perform their duties without favouritism. Given the impartial and politically sensitive nature of his office, the Chief Electoral Officer is the only Canadian citizen of voting age not allowed to vote in federal elections.

Appointment of the Chief Electoral Officer

The position of Chief Electoral Officer of Canada was created in 1920 in an effort to streamline and standardize the administration of federal elections. The Chief Electoral Officer is appointed by a resolution of the House of Commons. This procedure allows all parties represented in the House of Commons to participate in the selection process, thereby adding to the independence of the position. Six people have held this position since its inception:

  • Oliver Mowat Biggar (19201927)
  • Jules Castonguay (19271949)
  • Nelson Jules Castonguay (19491966)
  • Jean-Marc Hamel (19661990)
  • Jean-Pierre Kingsley (19902007)
  • Marc Mayrand (20072016)

Once appointed, the Chief Electoral Officer may be removed from office only for cause, by the Governor General, on a joint address of the House of Commons and the Senate. Before 2014, the Chief Electoral Officer was appointed to serve until the age of 65. New appointees after 2014 are to serve for a term of 10 years.


As an independent agency, Elections Canada is funded by an annual appropriation, which covers the salaries of permanent full-time employees, and by a statutory authority contained in the Canada Elections Act, the Referendum Act and the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, which draws on the Consolidated Revenue Fund. The statutory authority covers all other expenditures, including the cost of preparing and conducting electoral events, maintaining the National Register of Electors, redistribution of electoral districts and continuing public information and education programs. The salary of the Chief Electoral Officer and contributions to employee benefit plans are also statutory items.

The statutory authority serves to recognize Elections Canada's independence from the Government and from the influence of political parties. It is a critical component in maintaining the integrity of the democratic process.

The Commissioner of Canada Elections

The Commissioner of Canada Elections is appointed for a term of seven years by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) pursuant to the Canada Elections Act. He or she is responsible for ensuring that the Canada Elections Act and the Referendum Act are complied with and enforced. The position was created in 1974 and was originally restricted to ensuring that the rules concerning election financing and expenses were enforced. In 1977, the Commissioner's responsibilities were extended to cover all provisions of the Canada Elections Act. In 2006, the Federal Accountability Act transferred the authority for prosecution of offences under the Act to the DPP. In 2014, the law was amended so that the Commissioner would no longer be appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer, and would be relocated from within Elections Canada to within the Office of the DPP.

The Commissioner receives complaints from the public and from Elections Canada. For example, Elections Canada's political financing directorate may report potential offences under the Act that are identified during audits of the parties', candidates' or others' financial returns.

The Broadcasting Arbitrator

In consultation with the political parties represented in the House of Commons, the Chief Electoral Officer appoints a Broadcasting Arbitrator, who allocates both paid air time (provided by broadcasters) and free air time (provided by network operators) to political parties during a general election and free time to referendum committees during a referendum. Broadcasting time is allocated according to a formula set out in the Canada Elections Act. The Broadcasting Arbitrator also arbitrates time-allocation disputes between political parties and broadcasters or network operators.