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The Evolution of the Duties to be Fulfilled by Poll Staff with Regards to Registration and Voting on Polling Day and Advance Polling Days, 1920 to 2012

PART II. The Workload of Deputy Returning Officers,
Poll Clerks and Registration Officers

A. Number of Hours Worked

In 1920, polling stations were open for 10 hours in rural polling divisions, and for 12 hours in urban ones. From 1921, all polling stations were open for a total of 10 hours. The exact times the polls open and close were altered repeatedly over the years (see Appendix 4), but the total amount of time polls had to remain open has been 10 hours until 1960, 11 hours until 1996, and 12 hours since then. Since 1996, voting hours have varied across time zones, but the total number of hours (12) is the same across the country. This had been recommended by the Lortie Commission, and addressed a long-standing grievance among residents in western provinces, some of whom were still voting while the first results from eastern provinces were announced in the media.

On the other hand, the number of hours advance polls are open has increased considerably since 1920. Three days were appointed under the 1920 Act, and this is still the case, though the exact days are no longer the same as they were then.Footnote 15 The total number of hours advance polling stations were open was 9 hours in 1920. This was increased to 14 hours in 1934 and 24 hours in 1938 a figure that is still valid today, though the exact times the polls open and close have varied (see Appendix 4). A typical working day at an advance poll lasted 3 hours in 1920, 3 or 6 hours (depending on the day) in 1934, 8 hours in 1938, 12 hours in 1960, and 8 hours since 1977.

B. Number of Voters to be Dealt With

While the number of hours ordinary polling stations are open has remained relatively stable, the number of voters to be dealt with in polling stations, both ordinary and advance, has increased markedly.

The 1920 Act remained silent on how many electors should be included within each polling division. Since 1934, benchmarks have been provided by the Act: as nearly as possible 300 electors (1934), approximately 350 (1938), approximately 250 (1970), at least 250 (present). However, this is an imperfect indicator, as returning officers are empowered to establish more than one polling station for each polling division. Actual figures are much more revealing. Each ordinary polling station included an average of 346.6 electors at the three most recent elections (2006, 2008 and 2011), compared with an average of 186.6 electors at the three elections held in the 1920s (1921, 1925 and 1926). This is an increase of 85.7%.

Granted, the number of electors is not an accurate measure of the work actually done, because electors who abstain from voting are by definition not dealt with by election officers. A more significant indicator is the average number of votes (both valid and invalid) actually cast at each polling station. The figure for the three most recent elections is 192.8, which, compared with 119.7 in the 1920s, represents a 61% increase. As there are more votes to be counted than before, it can be inferred that the number of hours spent by election officers in the polling station after the closing of the poll is higher today than it was in the 1920s.

The average number of votes (both valid and invalid) actually cast at advance polling stations has increased from 43 in the 1920s to 428.4 at the last three elections, an almost tenfold increase. This reflects both the widening of the grounds on which electors may vote in advance, and the increase over the years of the number of electors who found it convenient to take advantage of the relaxed rules (now about 14% of all votes cast). Election officers assigned to advance polling stations work longer hours than in the 1920s, and have to deal with many more people.Footnote 16

C. Material To Be Used By Polling Staff

The electoral process involves much more paperwork than merely ballot papers. Some documents must be presented, oaths must be taken, registers must be kept and statements must be filled out. Until 1977, when the Chief Electoral Officer was empowered to prescribe such forms, they were legislated by Parliament and printed in Schedule I to the Act. The sheer number of forms that are relevant for the duties of DROs, poll clerks and registration officers, then, may be seen as an indicator (admittedly a crude one) of the workload of these officers.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to compare in a rigorous manner the number of forms to be used in polling stations in 1920 and today. Among the forms provided for by the 1920 Act, 26 were relevant for polling officers. Fifty years later, the number of forms (29) had barely increased.

Perhaps the most relevant indicator is the summary of duties prepared by Elections Canada for the use of election officials. In order to facilitate the training of election officials, the Chief Electoral Officer issued in July 1921 a set of detailed instructions.Footnote 17 The description of the duties of DROs at both ordinary and advance polls (there was no similar summary for poll clerks) covered barely 15 pages. The three manuals prepared by Elections Canada for the training of DROs/poll clerks (ordinary and advance polls) and for registration officers now run 99 (ordinary polls), 93 (advance polls) and 27 pages respectively.Footnote 18 Even after due allowance has been made for the variations that may have occurred with regards to the writing style and format of such instructions, these figures suggest that the job of poll officials has become more complex.

Footnote 15 From 1960 to 1977, advance polling stations were open for only two days.

Footnote 16 The figures for elections held in the 1920s were taken from the internal compendium of election statistics available at Elections Canada. These figures were compiled from successive reports of the Chief Electoral Officer for each election. Figures for the most recent elections were found in the Official Voting Results for the Forty-First General Election 2011, tables 1 and 5, and the corresponding documents for the 2008 and 2006 elections. These three reports are available at (accessed November 24, 2012).

Footnote 17 Canada. Chief Electoral Officer. 1921. Election Instructions for all Election Officers (Book A). Ottawa: King's Printer. The author wishes to thank Alain Pelletier, Acting Director, Policy and Research, Elections Canada, who brought this document to his attention.

Footnote 18 Elections Canada. 2011. Ordinary Poll Election: Deputy Returning Officers' and Poll Clerks' Manual. Elections Canada.; Elections Canada. 2011. Advance Poll Election: Deputy Returning Officers' and Poll Clerks' Manual. Elections Canada.; Elections Canada. 2011. Registration at the Polls Election or Referendum: A Manual for Registration Officers. Elections Canada. (All accessed December 20, 2012.)