The Electoral System of Canada
What does Elections Canada do to carry out its mandate?
Managing Field Operations
Preparing, managing and delivering field operations for electoral events are central to the mandate of Elections Canada. Among a multitude of operational tasks, the main ones are to:
- manage the supply of goods and services for an election, from ballot boxes to phone connections for local Elections Canada offices
- print, assemble and ship all election materials to every electoral district at the appropriate time
- develop the policies, procedures, manuals, forms and tools that facilitate registering electors, voting and managing an election
- administer the Special Voting RulesFootnote 1 and accessibility programs that make it possible for all those who have the right to vote to exercise that right
- oversee the appointment and training of returning officers, assistant returning officers and automation coordinators, who administer an election in each electoral district
- hire and train field liaison officers, who support returning officers in their work and act as an intermediary between returning officers and the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer during and between elections
- oversee and coordinate the administration of electoral events at the electoral district level
- manage the registration of electors during an electoral event
- manage the voting process itself
- manage the publication of results
Maintaining the National Register of Electors
Since 1997, Elections Canada has maintained the National Register of Electors, a permanent list of Canadians who are qualified to vote. The Register contains each elector's name, gender, date of birth, mailing and residential address, electoral district, polling division and unique identifier.
The Register is maintained:
- through partnerships with provincial, territorial and municipal electoral bodies to share data and monitor data quality
- by updating it with data from federal, provincial and territorial sources as well as information provided by electors during and between elections
The Register is used to produce:
- updated lists of electors each year for members of Parliament and, upon request, for registered political parties, to be sent by November 15 of each year
- the preliminary lists of electors for use at electoral events
During an election period, address updates, deletions and new registrations refine the lists.
The personal information of electors in the Register is protected under the Canada Elections Act and the Privacy Act. The Canada Elections Act allows an elector to remove his or her name from the Register by notifying the Chief Electoral Officer in writing.
The limited information obtained from federal data sources (the Canada Revenue Agency and Citizenship and Immigration Canada) may be gathered only with the consent of the individual concerned and may be used for electoral purposes only. Improper use of electoral information is an offence under the Canada Elections Act.
An elector who does not want his or her personal information to be shared with other jurisdictions for electoral purposes may notify the Chief Electoral Officer in writing. Opting out of the Register or declining to share one's information in the Register does not affect the elector's right to vote.
In addition to the National Register of Electors, Elections Canada maintains a register of electors who are temporarily living outside Canada. This International Register of Electors includes, among other information, the electors' electoral districts and their civic and mailing addresses. Canadian citizens abroad typically represent a fraction of a percent of the voters in a general election.
Making it possible for more than 24 million electors to vote within a 12-hour period is no easy task. Elections Canada assigns each elector to the polling station that serves the polling division where he or she resides. Efficient management of this process relies heavily on keeping electoral maps and geographic tools up to date and accurate. Elections Canada carries out various tasks in this area.
- It maintains the National Geographic Database jointly with Statistics Canada. This database contains data on streets in Canada, including their names and address ranges and many geographical features. It is used by Elections Canada for electoral operations and redistribution and by Statistics Canada for census operations.
- It maintains the Electoral Geography Database, which is derived from the National Geographic Database and contains cartographic representations of federal electoral districts, with all polling divisions and advance polling districts. This database is used to create the thousands of maps necessary for elections and to assign electors to the correct polling divisions based on their addresses.
- It plans and maintains the Geographic Information System to produce both printed and digital electoral maps as well as a variety of other geography-related documents.
- It provides technical support and digitized mapping tools to the electoral boundaries commissions.
Geographic Information System
Elections Canada's geographic databases provide the framework for locating electors in the National Register of Electors in an electoral district and assigning them to a polling division ("geocoding"), and for readjusting electoral boundaries after a 10-year census. Political parties receive digitized versions of electoral maps as well as access to the related web application, GeoExplore, which returning officers use to manage elections in their electoral district.
The Elections Canada website allows electors to enter their postal code to obtain information on their electoral district and member of Parliament and, during elections, the location of their polling station and contact information for their local Elections Canada office.
Elections Canada is committed to inclusive, universal and varied services that respond to the needs of all electors.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to vote in federal elections in Canada. To make the process accessible, the Canada Elections Act provides for a variety of voting methods and allows the Chief Electoral Officer to advertise the services it offers for assisting voters with disabilities. It gives Elections Canada the responsibility to ensure that polling places have level access. The agency has worked to remove the obstacles voters may encounter by making continual improvements to the electoral process, including communications and administrative processes.
In 2010, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal issued a decision requiring Elections Canada to implement measures that would increase the accessibility of the electoral process for electors with a physical disability. Elections Canada has put in place various processes to comply with this requirement.
To ensure accessibility, the voting process includes the following features:
- flexible voting methods: voting by mail or at a local Elections Canada office; advance voting days; mobile polls serving facilities for seniors or persons with physical disabilities; and, in special cases, voting at home in the presence of an election officer and a witness
- as much as possible, level access to local Elections Canada offices, polling stations and other premises used during an election
- in the event that a polling station does not have level access, provision of a transfer certificate when requested by an elector, allowing that person to vote at another location
- if requested in advance, sign language interpreters to assist electors at the polls
- the ability to have an election officer, a friend or a relative assist an elector with a disability in marking his or her ballot at the polls
- voting screens that admit plenty of light, lighted magnifiers to make the ballot easier to read, Braille and large-print lists of candidates on election day, and tactile and Braille templates that fit on top of a ballot
Election officers and community relations officers also receive training on meeting the accessibility needs of people with varied disabilities.
In 2014, the agency launched its Advisory Group for Disability Issues. This fulfilled a commitment by Elections Canada to ongoing consultations with groups that represent people with disabilities. An early outcome of this consultation came in February 2015, with the development of an accessibility policy and service offering. Among other things, the policy describes the mechanism for feedback, complaints and inquiries from individuals concerning accessibility. Elections Canada welcomes any input that will help it to better serve persons with disabilities.
The agency intends to continue working with the disability community to better understand accessibility issues and, as far as possible, reduce any barriers.
Operational and Strategic Planning
Elections Canada must be ready at all times to deliver a federal electoral event, be it a general election, by-election or referendum. Maintaining this state of readiness requires thorough planning and coordination of all activities, and a high degree of ability to adjust quickly as political events unfold.
Elections Canada has developed numerous customized planning tools to prepare for upcoming electoral events and manage the timely deployment of services after an election has been called. (For more information on what happens during an election, see General Election Countdown under the section The Federal Electoral Process.) A typical electoral event readiness plan tracks more than 800 high-level, interrelated activities that must all be completed before an election. Advanced management information systems help monitor the progress of an electoral event, at both national and local levels, against pre-set targets and benchmarks.
Strategic planning enables Elections Canada to develop and coordinate longer-term initiatives to address emerging national trends and improve election management.
Policy, Research and Analysis
Elections Canada on the Web
The most up-to-date information on the Canadian electoral process is accessible worldwide on the Elections Canada website at www.elections.ca. The site provides a wealth of information on all aspects of federal elections, including:
- the Voter Information Service, which allows electors to enter their postal code and learn how, when and where to register and vote
- the Online Voter Registration Service, which electors can use to find out if they are registered to vote in federal elections, to update their address or to complete their registration
- profiles of individual federal electoral districts, with maps, contact information for the returning officer and a list of all candidates during elections
- voter registration forms, along with instructions, for Canadian electors in or outside Canada who cannot or do not wish to vote at a polling station during an election
- sections for political entities that inform them about their rights and obligations and provide guidance, handbooks and reporting tools
- written opinions, guidelines and interpretation notes about the application of the Canada Elections Act to political entities, issued by Elections Canada on its own initiative or at the request of a political party
- a live feed of election results on election night
- a searchable section of financial returns from all political entities
- media information, publications and teaching resources and materials
- information about federal representation and electoral boundaries readjustment
Elections Canada is constantly connected with the electorate and the broader environment, including Parliament, the academic community, the media and international organizations. These connections enable it to:
- refine its knowledge of electoral matters so that it can support the Chief Electoral Officer in developing his recommendations to amend the Canada Elections Act and in advising parliamentarians on electoral matters
- support strategic planning, monitor progress in delivering electoral events, and complete corporate projects by conducting regular information gathering and analysis
- improve how it delivers elections by establishing links with academics, research institutes, provincial and national bodies, and international organizations involved in electoral matters
- keep in touch with the Canadian public by making information available in a variety of ways, including through its website
The Canada Elections Act mandates the Chief Electoral Officer to:
- implement public education and information programs for the purpose of making the electoral process better known to students at the primary and secondary levels
- conduct advertising for the purpose of informing electors about the exercise of their democratic rights or for any other purpose relating to the Chief Electoral Officer's mandate
Elections Canada has identified groups for targeted outreach based on the electoral participation barriers they face – particularly the barrier of a lack of information about when, where and how to register and vote. The groups include youth and students, Aboriginal people, seniors in long-term care facilities, ethnocultural communities, electors with disabilities and electors who are homeless.
Elections Canada works with national and regional organizations that are able to reach members of these groups. The agency:
- shares information about the electoral process, for distribution by partner organizations to their stakeholders
- informs groups about Elections Canada programs, including online services and field outreach during an election
- actively solicits the groups' collaboration to share official voting information and promote Elections Canada's initiatives
Overseeing Political Financing
The Canada Elections Act (CEA) establishes a detailed set of political financing rules for federal electoral district associations, nomination contestants, leadership contestants, third parties, political parties and candidates. The rules were most recently amended by Bill C-76 in 2019.
Elections Canada's responsibilities in the area of political financing include:
- reviewing for compliance with the CEA and publishing:
- annual financial returns and financial statements of registered political parties and their registered electoral district associations
- quarterly financial returns, required from any registered party if the candidates the party endorsed received at least 2 percent of the valid votes cast in the most recent general election, or 5 percent of the valid votes cast in the electoral districts where the party endorsed a candidate
- registered parties election expenses returns
- leadership contestants registration and campaign returns
- nomination campaign returns for contestants who receive or spend $1,000 or more
- candidate's electoral campaign returns for general elections and by-elections
- third party interim expenses returns and electoral campaign returns
- reviewing the financial returns of registered referendum committees after a referendum
- administering the reimbursement of election expenses to eligible candidates (after a general election or by-election) and to parties (after a general election)
- administering audit subsidies payable to auditors for candidates, nomination contestants, leadership contestants and registered electoral district associations
Taking Advantage of Information and Communication Technology
New technology is integral to how Elections Canada manages and delivers elections. The agency carries out a number of activities with this technology:
- managing electronic networks and intranets at headquarters and in the field to enable communications
- maintaining and improving applications supporting the National Register of Electors and the Electoral Geography Database, as well as several other tools that support real-time monitoring of and reporting on electoral events
- developing and expanding Elections Canada's social media presence
- developing customized applications that support key services, such as the Voter Information Service, real-time broadcasting of election results and online reporting for political entities
- developing and supporting customized applications that enable political parties, electoral district associations, candidates, nomination contestants and leadership contestants to complete and submit financial returns required by the Canada Elections Act
Since 1980, Elections Canada has contributed to multilateral and bilateral forums dedicated to the electoral process.
Elections Canada is actively engaged with a number of international organizations, partner electoral management bodies (EMBs) and ongoing forums of experts to identify, share and contribute to best practices in electoral administration. Elections Canada also receives foreign delegations who want to learn more about the Canadian electoral system.
For past Canadian general elections, Elections Canada has hosted visitors' programs, bringing together a number of guests, including international electoral organizations, foreign EMBs, and chief electoral officers of Canadian provinces and territories, who learn first-hand about the Canadian electoral process.
At the Governor in Council's request, Elections Canada may assist and co-operate in electoral matters with electoral agencies in other countries or international organizations.
Return to source of Footnote 1 The Special Voting Rules are set out under Part 11 of the Canada Elections Act. They allow Canadian electors to cast their ballot by mail or in person at their local Elections Canada office.