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Electoral Insight – 2004 General Election

Electoral Insight – January 2005

Chief Electoral Officer's Message
The 2004 General Election

Jean-Pierre Kingsley
Chief Electoral Officer of Canada

Jean-Pierre Kingsley
Jean-Pierre Kingsley
Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada

Canada's 38th general election was held on June 28, 2004. The election period began on May 23, following a period of significant legislative and political changes, including changes to the electoral boundaries, party registration requirements and political financing rules, as well as changes in the leadership of several political parties and the merger of two parties.

This special issue of Electoral Insight is devoted to the 2004 general election. The articles cover a broad range of issues, including youth electoral participation, the representation of women and Aboriginal people, both as candidates and as members of Parliament, and the impact of legislative provisions relating to public opinion polls and political party financing. In addition, three authors examine the possible effects of institutional changes that have been the focus of recent public debate, namely electoral system reform and fixed-date elections.

To provide a context for the articles in this issue, I am presenting here an overview of the conduct of the 38th general election. First, I review the legislative context of the election. Second, I describe Elections Canada's key initiatives. I conclude with a look at Elections Canada's post-election research and analysis as we prepare for Canada's 39th general election.

The context of the 2004 general election

The 38th general election took place in a complex and evolving legislative context. Foremost among the recent legislative changes was Bill C-24, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act (political financing), which made far-reaching changes to the political finance regime. Among other provisions, the new legislation introduced limits on political contributions and a ban on contributions from unions and corporations to political parties and leadership contestants. Disclosure and registration requirements were extended to cover electoral district associations and nomination and leadership contestants. The legislation also established a publicly funded system of quarterly allowances for registered political parties, based on the number of votes they obtained in the previous general election. Bill C-24 came into force on January 1, 2004.

Another significant challenge was the 2003 Representation Order, which increased the number of electoral districts from 301 to 308. By law, Canada's federal electoral boundaries are adjusted every 10 years, following the Census, to reflect changes in the population. Bill C-5, An Act respecting the effective date of the representation order of 2003, set the effective date of the 2003 Representation Order at April 1, 2004.

In May 2004, Bill C-3, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act, changed the requirements for political party registration. The bill came in response to the June 2003 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Figueroa v. Canada (Attorney General), which declared that provisions of the Act requiring a registered party to nominate at least 50 candidates in a general election were unconstitutional. Under the new rules, political parties may be registered if they nominate at least one confirmed candidate and meet certain administrative requirements. There were 12 registered political parties in the 2004 election, one more than at the previous general election in 2000.

Elections Canada's main initiatives for the 2004 general election

Following the 37th general election in 2000, Elections Canada identified four priority areas for improvements:

1) the quality of the lists of electors; 2) the voter information cards sent to all registered electors; 3) communication with electors through the advertising campaign; and 4) responses to enquiries from the public. As my report on the 38th general election shows, our commitment to those improvements has been met. Footnote 1

Improvements to the National Register of Electors and the revision process

As a result of improvements to the Register, it is estimated that the preliminary lists of electors used during the 38th general election included more than 95% of electors, with 83% (±2%) listed at the correct address. This is a marked improvement over the 37th general election, when 89% of electors were on the lists, 79% at the correct address. These improvements result from several key initiatives.

First, we have continued to improve our ability to update the Register by making more effective use of existing data sources, as well as adding new ones, including driver's licence data in Alberta and Canada Post's National Change of Address files. Continued collaboration with electoral agencies in the provinces and territories has also contributed to list quality improvements.

Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Jean-Pierre Kingsley signs 308 writs, one for each electoral district, for the general election of June 28, 2004.

We have also improved the Register's coverage, especially of youth, by adding electors from administrative data sources such as the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Since 2002, following changes to our agreement with the CRA, eligible tax filers who were not already in the Register could consent on their income tax returns to be added to it. Elections Canada must still confirm the citizenship of these individuals before adding them to the Register. For this purpose, we mailed registration packages to more than 2.2 million potential electors in 2003; some 275,000 responded positively and were added to the Register, and another 80,000 wrote to inform us they were not citizens.

In February 2004, we wrote to some 1.1 million young Canadians who turned 18 after the 37th general election, to remind them of their right to vote and ensure they were registered to vote in the upcoming election. Once the election was called, we wrote to 250,000 young people who still had not registered to tell them how they could register during the revision period or at the polls.

Improving address and geographic information remains a priority. We can now pinpoint 87% of electors (up from 65% in 2000) on our digital maps using their residential address information, thus assigning them to the correct poll with greater confidence.

Changes made since 2000 to the computer system used for election registration (REVISE) greatly facilitated the revision process and improved the accuracy of the lists. In particular, the system now allows us to transfer the records of individuals who have moved to another electoral district, to avoid creating duplicate entries on the lists. It also enables us to send the latest electronic updates from the Register to returning officers; some 335,000 updates, including over 80,000 changes of address from Canada Post, current to mid-May, were transmitted to returning officers at the beginning of the election period.

We also improved targeted revision, in which revising agents go door-to-door to register voters in areas where a high percentage of electors may not have been included on the preliminary lists. We set up a central registry of high-mobility addresses and carried out a demographic analysis of Register coverage to identify areas with low registration rates. This information was provided to returning officers before the general election for addition to their lists of dwellings for targeted revision.

Revising agents conduct targeted revision in a new suburb

During this election, revising agents visited approximately 1,295,000 addresses and completed registration forms for some 266,000 households. When we compare this to the 2000 general election, when some 515,000 addresses were visited and registration forms were completed for some 192,000 households, it seems that, despite a greater effort, the effectiveness of door-to-door canvassing in eliciting registrations has declined. There are a number of reasons for this, among them a growing reluctance to open doors to strangers and increasing absences from home. In addition, revising agents cannot register people who are not at home, without identification. In light of this, we will continue to pursue new registration methods, such as on-line voter registration, which has considerable potential to improve service to the elector.

Maintaining the Register is, more than ever, a collaborative effort. Political parties and members of Parliament share responsibility with us for maintaining the accuracy of the National Register of Electors. Together, we will continue to improve the Register, with particular emphasis on ensuring that youth are registered, on geocoding improvements in rural areas, and on increasing the currency of the Register.

Voter information cards (VICs)

For the 38th general election, we improved the voter information card by including, after the elector's name, the message "or to the elector", instead of "or occupant". Also, Canada Post was instructed not to forward the card to a new address, but rather to leave it at the address indicated. According to our post-election public opinion survey, which was conducted for Elections Canada by EKOS Research Associates Inc., some 84% of respondents recalled receiving a VIC addressed to them personally. Among these, some 95% recalled that the personal information on the VIC (name, address) was correct.

Communication with electors

Electors who were not already on the lists could register when they went to vote, either at the advance polls or on election day

Our third key area for improvement was communication with electors. Our advertising campaign for this election featured clear, easily understood messages that informed Canadians about how to register and vote and motivated them to participate in the election. The ads contained a strong youth element, along with a focus on the option of voting at any time during the election. Messages were also developed specifically for Aboriginal electors, and placed in community newspapers, and on radio stations and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. In preparing our advertising campaign, my Office consulted with key stakeholders, including electors, parliamentarians and political parties.

We also developed a series of outreach initiatives for young people and Aboriginal electors, following research that shows turnout tends to be lower among these groups.

Community relations officers for youth identified neighbourhoods with high concentrations of students for special registration drives, assisted in locating polls in places easily accessible to youth, and informed the community and youth leaders about registration and voting. The redesigned "Young Voters" section of the Elections Canada Web site, which offered information on the electoral process, was visited more than 103,000 times during the election period.

For young electors, we developed or supported a number of initiatives in co-operation with other organizations and agencies, including Student Vote 2004, the Dominion Institute, Rush the Vote, the Historica Foundation, and Cable in the Classroom. We also worked with four post-secondary student associations to develop a poster display for campuses. Details of these partnerships are provided in my report to Parliament.

In developing our outreach initiatives for Aboriginal electors, we benefited greatly from consultations with leaders of national Aboriginal associations. Also useful was the Roundtable on Aboriginal Youth and the Federal Electoral Process, which Elections Canada hosted, together with the Canadian Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language and Education, at Carleton University in January 2004. These consultations provided valuable opportunities for dialogue, learning and information sharing.

Half of the 329 community relations officers appointed by returning officers for the 38th general election were for Aboriginal communities. They helped with targeted revision, arranged polling stations in Aboriginal communities, helped recruit Aboriginal poll officials, and informed returning officers about issues of concern to the local communities. More than 600 polls were established on First Nations reserves and in Inuit and Métis communities, and more than 2,000 Aboriginal persons served as deputy returning officers and poll clerks.

Elections Canada worked with friendship centres to keep Aboriginal people informed about the election and, with the help of the National Aboriginal Women's Association, distributed key materials in English, French and Inuktitut, including 240,000 voter information guides. The Elections Canada Web site also posted materials in 10 other frequently used Aboriginal languages.

Aboriginal electoral participation received greater public attention during this election than ever before. One week before election day, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, held a press conference where he said, "The Assembly of First Nations, for the first time in recent history, is encouraging our people to get to the polls and to vote."

Responses to enquiries from electors

An information officer at a call centre in Ottawa answers an elector’s questions.

To better respond to elector enquiries, we developed a 24-hour-a-day Voter Information Service (VIS), which included an automated Voice Response System, call centres, and a self-service facility on the Web. The VIS could tell an elector phoning in or on the Web where he or she was to vote; only the postal code or address was needed. By the end of the election period, some 750,000 calls were handled by Elections Canada and 1.1 million were handled locally by the returning officers.

My Office also redesigned its Web site to provide more information than ever before to electors. During the election period, the Web site had 1,580,672 visits, a 76% increase over the 37th general election. Our new Election Night Results application handled 50,186 visits during a three-hour period.

Voting in the 38th general election

In total, 13,683,570 electors cast ballots in the 2004 general election. Most of them voted on election day, at more than 60,000 polling stations in nearly 15,000 locations, including approximately 1,100 mobile polls. Almost 1.25 million electors, an increase of more than 60% over the 2000 election, voted in advance. Some 2,700 advance polling sites were open on June 18, 19 and 21.

Members of the Canadian Forces – including teachers and administrative support staff at Canadian Forces schools outside Canada – vote in a federal election by special ballot wherever they are stationed. There were more than 62,000 registered electors in the Canadian Forces, serving in 1,046 units both in and outside Canada. In Afghanistan, Warrant Officer Robert McCann of Québec receives the ballot and candidate list on June 15, 2004, at Camp Julien, at the advance poll for members of Canadian Forces units taking part in the International Security Assistance Force.

Just over 250,000 Canadians voted by special ballot in the 2004 general election. This included some 22,300 ballots cast by Canadian Forces electors, and just over 7,700 votes by Canadians living outside Canada. Other electors who made use of the special ballot included students away from home, patients in acute care hospitals, incarcerated electors and individuals living or working in remote areas, including 23 lighthouses in British Columbia, several fire lookout stations in Alberta, two diamond mines in the Northwest Territories, a gold mine in Nunavut and the Voisey's Bay construction project in Labrador.

The official turnout at the June 28, 2004, election was 60.9%. Official turnout for the 2000 election was 64.1% – revised from the initial report of 61.2%, following removal of duplicates on the final list of electors.


Elections Canada is continuing its analysis of the 2004 general election through surveys with various stakeholders. These will assist in refining our systems and procedures and in finalizing my recommendations for improvements to the Canada Elections Act.

Elections Canada also contributed to the 2004 Canadian Election Study (CES), a major academic study that has been conducted for every Canadian general election since 1968. Footnote 2 Elections Canada has partnered with the CES since the 1997 general election. The first article in this issue of Electoral Insight is by the 2004 CES team.

During the election, the issue of voter turnout received a great deal of attention from interested individuals, community organizations and the media. In particular, the participation of young voters was one of the most prominent issues of the campaign – although it did not become politicized. Encouraging youth participation has been a key undertaking of my Office, as it is a legislative responsibility according to section 18 of the Canada Elections Act. As Chief Electoral Officer, I strive to make all Canadians aware of the electoral process and their democratic right to vote. Our key message reflects the fact that the right to vote, which lies at the heart of our democratic system, stems from the intrinsic value, the fundamental equality of every individual. However, that right is only meaningful when it is used. Voting is the geste primaire of democracy.

Elections Canada is continuing to focus on youth turnout. To do this, we have conducted a study on the rate of turnout by age group in the 2004 election, using a random sample of polling divisions selected from electoral districts in every province and territory. Footnote 3 The results of this study show that for first-time electors (18 to 21½ years old), the turnout rate was 38.7%. While this appears to be a significant increase over the rate of youth turnout at the 2000 election, which was reported to be 25%, I would caution that in light of the different methodologies employed, direct comparisons cannot be made. Footnote 4 We will be pursuing research on participation.

In concluding, I wish to thank the authors who contributed to this issue. Their articles provide new insights into a range of important issues. In doing so, they not only deepen our understanding of the 38th general election; they contribute to the ongoing public discussions about how to improve Canada's electoral process. Elections Canada is committed to continuing reforms that have helped make Canada a model of electoral democracy around the world. Research is an important part of that process.


Footnote 1 Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada on the 38th General Election Held on June 28, 2004. Submitted to Parliament on October 21, 2004. Available at

Footnote 2 With one exception – the 1972 election.

Footnote 3 The analysis, which involved some 95,000 voters in total, has a statistical reliability of ±4%, 19 times out of 20, when the results are generalized to the entire Canadian voting-age population.

Footnote 4 The figure of 25% was for 18–24-year-olds. It was drawn from a study, which my Office commissioned in 2002, titled "Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A New Survey of Non-voters," by professors Jon H. Pammett and Lawrence LeDuc. That study was based on a survey of voters and non-voters (a copy of the study, along with the methodology report and the database, are available on Elections Canada's Web site at As in all survey-based studies, the rate of voter turnout was over-reported. Consequently, and in keeping with standard practice, the researchers used statistical corrections or weights to estimate the rate of turnout for the different age groups.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.