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Pandemic ContextSpecial Ballot Report – 44th General Election

In past elections, electors, while in their home electoral district, rarely voted by special ballot and returned their ballot by mail. Electors who do this are known as "local electors," and their special ballot kits are issued by the office of their local returning officer (ORO) and are counted locally. In an unpredictable pandemic context, Elections Canada could not risk being unprepared for a great increase in demand for voting by special ballot, especially for electors wishing to use that option from within their home electoral districts because of public health concerns.

Therefore, to prepare for the election, the agency worked on or included:

  • Enabling electors to upload their identification documents and check the status of their application or returned marked ballot as part of the new online registration system for local electors
  • Deploying to local offices the Internal Document Review System (IDRS), which used OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software; this allowed staff to review and process online requests from local electors to vote by special ballot
  • Deploying additional computer equipment at every local Elections Canada office to increase capacity to issue special ballots
  • Facilitating the deployment of additional staff at local Elections Canada offices to enable a night shift, if necessary, to manage volumes during peak periods
  • A postage-paid return envelope in special ballot kits sent out by mail
  • Designated ballot boxes at most polling locations on election day to allow local electors to return their special ballot in person if they could not do so by mail
  • A process that would allow for electors who did not receive or could not use their special ballot voting kit to cancel their request and vote at their polling station on election day by completing a Voting Status Certificate
  • Increased communications on the special ballot process and associated legal deadlines
  • Adapting the Canada Elections Act (CEA)

Note: Data included in this report have been updated since the publication of the Report on the 44th General Election of September 20, 2021. Numbers presented herein are as of March 1, 2022, and are subject to further review and analysis.

Categories of Special Ballot Voters

While all electors are entitled to apply to vote by special ballot, the CEA divides electors into five categories for the purposes of the Special Voting Rules (Part 11 of the CEA). They are:

  1. Canadian Forces electors, members of the Canadian Armed Forces who vote at an established military poll
  2. International electors, Canadian citizens who reside outside Canada
  3. Incarcerated electors, electors who are incarcerated in a provincial or federal correctional facility
  4. National electors, electors residing in Canada who vote at an Elections Canada office or by mail and who are not in their electoral district
  5. Local electors, electors residing in Canada who vote at an Elections Canada office or by mail and whose application for registration and special ballot has been approved by the office in the electoral district where they reside

As outlined in the CEA, ballots for categories 1 to 4 are counted at the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer (OCEO) by special ballot officers. The Special Voting Rules Administrator supervises this count, and the results are reported as "SVR-Group1" in the Official Voting Results (OVR) report. Ballots for category 5 are counted by election officers at the ORO in each electoral district and are reported as "SVR-Group2" in the OVR report. Exceptionally, ballots for category 5 that are received at the OCEO are counted centrally, and the results are included in "SVR-Group1" in the OVR report.

The Special Ballot Process

All electors who wish to vote by special ballot, whether in person at a local Elections Canada office or by mail, must request to do so by completing an Application for Registration and Special Ballot,1 including presenting or providing copies of the required identification documents. The application must be received by 6:00 p.m. on the Tuesday before election day. This deadline is set out in the CEA.

Once an Application for Registration and Special Ballot has been approved, the elector is issued a special ballot voting kit. This kit includes:

  • A write-in special ballot on which the elector must write a candidate's name
  • Two envelopes, that is an inner envelope and an outer envelope
  • Instructions on how to fill out the special ballot and use the envelope system
  • A postage-paid return envelope, if the elector wants to return the special ballot by mail

Once an elector writes the name of the candidate of their choice on the special ballot, they must place the special ballot in the inner envelope and seal it. The inner envelope contains no markings that would make it possible to identify the elector. It is often referred to as a "secrecy envelope." The elector then places that envelope in the larger outer envelope and also seals it. On the outer envelope is the elector's name, electoral district, a unique outer envelope number or barcode, and a declaration that must be signed by the elector. By signing the declaration, the elector affirms that they are qualified to vote (i.e. at least 18 years old and a Canadian citizen), have not previously voted in the election and will not attempt to vote again.

The counting of special ballots is governed by two different Divisions of Part 11 of the CEA. Division 6 covers special ballots counted at the OCEO, while Division 7 covers special ballots counted at the ORO. The counting procedures are explained in detail later in this report. While the procedures for the count differ slightly between the two divisions, they both aim to provide results that are reliable and trusted by making sure that every special ballot that should be counted is counted and that ballots that should be set aside in accordance with the Act are set aside. Ballots that must be set aside include those received after the prescribed deadlines (at the close of polls for local electors and at 6:00 p.m. in Ottawa for national, international, Canadian Forces and incarcerated electors) and those set aside during the verification process or the count. Other ballots which must legally be set aside for other reasons are described in detail later in this report.

Integrity Measures

There are many legislated and administrative measures in place to protect the integrity of the vote by special ballot including:

  • Striking the name of the elector from the list of electors once the Application for Registration and Special Ballot is approved to show that the elector has been issued a special ballot2
  • Providing or mailing through Canada Post or another trusted carrier a special ballot kit only to the elector requesting it
  • Not allowing an elector who is recorded as having voted by special ballot to vote again
  • Not allowing an elector who has been issued a special ballot but who has not yet used it to vote at advance polls or at ordinary polls on polling day, except in rare circumstances authorized by the CEO, including when their kit has been damaged
  • Verifying all outer envelopes to make sure that they meet the legal criteria to be counted, prior to counting special ballots
  • Having election officers count special ballots by hand in front of witnesses, including candidates or their authorized representatives or authorized representatives of political parties, as with all other ballots
  • Instructing returning officers to use security measures such as cabinets that can be locked and a 24/7 alarm system to protect ballots while in storage at Elections Canada offices across the country; storing ballots in secure locations with 24-hour security and alarm systems at the OCEO
  • Referring the matter to the Commissioner of Canada Elections for investigation, if there is evidence that an elector has voted, or has attempted to vote more than once

Late and Unreturned Ballots

For the 44th general election, a total of 99,988 outer envelopes were received by Elections Canada but had to be set aside and left unopened in accordance with the Act. Of these, 92,542 were set aside because they were received after the legal deadlines; they represent nearly 93% of all outer envelopes set aside. An additional 106,695 special ballots were never returned to Elections Canada. As indicated previously, Elections Canada is conducting additional analysis to assess how processes can be improved further and identify potential remedies.

It should be noted that a ballot that was not used in the 44th general election may not be used in a future election. Notably, the ballot would not be counted, because it would not be associated with an application for a special ballot made for that future election.

Local Elections Canada Offices

1,016,084 special ballot voting kits issued

153.3% More ballots than in the 2019 federal election

882,815 valid votes

68,011 set aside in accordance with the Canada Elections Act

62,460 not returned

Elections Canada Headquarters

259,142 special ballot voting kits issued

13.5% Less ballots than in the 2019 federal election

185,728 valid votes

31,977 set aside in accordance with the Canada Elections Act

44,235 not returned


1 Slightly different rules apply to incarcerated electors and Canadian Forces members voting at military polls.

2 This does not apply to international or incarcerated electors.