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The March 1996 By-Elections – Technological Innovation – Reaping the Rewards


The Labrador, Newfoundland riding had been vacant since September 21, 1995, following the Hon. Bill Rompkey's resignation. Under the Parliament of Canada Act, a writ ordering a by-election must be issued within six months of the date on which the Chief Electoral Officer is officially informed of the vacancy by the Speaker of the House of Commons. Before this deadline was reached, five other electoral districts lost their Members. On January 15, 1996, the Leader of the Bloc Québécois, the Hon. Lucien Bouchard, resigned from his Lac-Saint-Jean seat; 10 days later, the Hon. Brian Tobin, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, resigned as Member for Humber - St. Barbe - Baie Verte. On January 24, just one day earlier, three other seats became vacant: Papineau - Saint-Michel and Saint-Laurent - Cartierville in Quebec, following the resignation of the Hon. André Ouellet, Shirley Maheu, and the Ontario Member for Etobicoke North, the Hon. Roy MacLaren.

On the morning of February 7, six by-elections were called for these ridings. At Elections Canada, the announcement meant, "All systems go."

The first urgent task was to send all electoral supplies to the six returning officers, once they had found satisfactory premises and confirmed their office addresses with Elections Canada. In the two days following announcement of the elections, the Ottawa Distribution Centre shipped the first boxes by priority post to the returning officers in the three Quebec ridings, the Ontario riding and Humber - St. Barbe - Baie Verte in Newfoundland. Because it had been known since September that a by-election was inevitable in Labrador and express service to this remote area is not guaranteed by Canada Post, the first cases of supplies had already been shipped to the returning officer so that office set-up would not be unduly delayed.

Every day until the end of March, the national and local media made about 20 calls on the dedicated media line. Throughout the election period, Elections Canada's Media Relations Services published some 20 news releases explaining the major steps in the electoral process and voting methods, together with reminders of the various deadlines.


Within a few days, a genuine race against the clock was under way. In a short space of time, the returning officers had to set up and open their offices, confirm the locations for the polls and advance polls, plan the recruiting of enumerators, revising officers and revising agents, inform the public that by-elections were in progress, and notify them of the first significant dates during the election period: the dates of enumeration and registration for the special ballot. In the two Newfoundland ridings, a provincial general election already in progress complicated the recruiting of election officials. Most of the individuals suggested by the political parties were already hired to work at the polls and advance polls on February 19 and 22, the same week as the federal enumeration.

The Elections Canada support network sprang into action immediately to answer calls from returning officers. They telephoned resource people to ask for information on the ECAPLE system, various electoral procedures, the accounting methods to be used and communication with the public. An average of seven calls per electoral district were made daily to the support network, twice as many as the national average during a general election period.

On February 7, the Department of External Affairs and International Trade electronic network relayed a message to Canadian diplomatic missions and consular posts around the world to notify electors abroad of the upcoming by-elections. A simultaneous news release and guide on voting by Canadians abroad was posted on the Internet. Electors whose residence or last address in Canada is in one of the six ridings were invited to register, if they had not already done so.

On February 12, similar news releases were sent to the major media in Florida and Arizona and to the Snowbirds' Association, which links Canadians who spend winters in the South. Interested parties were told they could vote by special ballot, after obtaining the required form from their returning officer, directly from Elections Canada, via the Internet, or from a Canadian diplomatic mission.

Launch of the Advertising Campaign

The advertising campaign began on Saturday, February 17. An advertisement appeared in the Corner Brook Western Star, the Chicoutimi Le Quotidien, the Montreal Journal de Montréal and The Gazette, and the Toronto Star. In the following week, the same advertisement appeared in 10 Newfoundland, Quebec and Ontario regional weeklies. The announcements informed the public of an imminent visit from enumerators and provided key information, such as the Elections Canada toll-free number and the phone number of the local returning officer. Advertisements were also placed in 38 student newspapers, in both official languages, to make the college and university population aware of the importance of registering (or amending their registration if necessary) during the revision period. On campuses in Montreal and Toronto, as well as at Université Laval in Quebec City and Memorial University in St. John's, some 30 backlit posters were on display from February 19 until March 17 to attract the attention of student electors.

The six returning officers were busy appointing and training enumerators recommended by the parties, as well as other election officials, including enumeration supervisors. On February 12, each one received an information kit explaining the communication program planned for the electoral district. Kits were also sent to citizenship courts and associations that work with ethnocultural communities and persons with special needs. Information kits in Innu and Inuktitut were prepared for the many Aboriginal electors in the Labrador riding and distributed to Aboriginal media and community radio stations.


On Monday, February 19, some 1 700 enumerators, easily recognizable by their yellow Elections Canada badges, started knocking on doors in the six electoral districts. Until Sunday, February 25, they visited every residence in teams of two to collect the information needed to produce the new lists of electors.

A news release on February 19 and an initial advertising blitz informed the public that enumerators would call some time during the week. Overall, enumeration was completed successfully, although in Newfoundland, bad weather at the beginning of the week combined with the Thursday, February 22, provincial general election posed a challenge for the enumeration team. From February 26 until March 20, revising agents added names to the preliminary lists and struck out or corrected entries based on information provided by electors.


February 26 marked the close of nominations. At 2:00 p.m., the deadline set in the Act for submitting nomination papers, 32 candidates, including seven women, officially announced their intention of running for office. Seven of the 14 registered parties nominated candidates, but not all in every riding.

Four candidates were nominated in Humber - St. Barbe - Baie Verte and five in Labrador, including one independent. In Quebec, there were five candidates in Lac-Saint-Jean, five in Papineau - Saint-Michel and six in Saint-Laurent - Cartierville, including one with no party affiliation. The largest number of candidates, seven including one with no party affiliation, were in the race for Etobicoke North.


In Ottawa, an Elections Canada team waited for confirmation of the candidates whose nominations were faxed in by the six returning officers in the few minutes following the 5:00 p.m. deadline. The team immediately began to prepare the official list of candidates, to be distributed to the media in news releases by the end of the day and on diskette to the Department of Foreign Affairs for electronic transmission to Canadian diplomatic missions and consular posts abroad. The Department of National Defence also received a copy, to be faxed to Canadian Forces bases. On the evening of February 26, each returning officer sent the names and party affiliations of the candidates for that electoral district to the local printer who produced the ballots.

At the same time as the pay system for election officials and suppliers was activated, the Elections Canada finance team began calculating the election expenditure limits for the candidates, determined in part by the number of electors on the preliminary list for each riding. The limits were set at $63 362.29 for Humber - St. Barbe - Baie Verte, $54 177.96 for Labrador, $66 323.09 for Lac-Saint-Jean, $53 615.51 for Papineau - Saint-Michel, $55 718.76 for Saint-Laurent - Cartierville and $56 303.35 for Etobicoke North.

The spending limit for the four parties that ran a candidate in each of the six ridings: the Liberal Party of Canada, the New Democratic Party, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Reform Party of Canada, was $165 798.54. The Bloc Québécois was allowed to spend $89 542.53, while the Abolitionist Party of Canada and the Christian Heritage Party of Canada were each subject to a limit of $34 447.30.

Sittings for Revision

The next significant date was March 7, the first of two consecutive days on which revisal offices were open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. in each riding. Electors who were still not registered or who wanted to correct information relating to themselves could do so by meeting with the revising officer at a revisal office. Revising officers also deal with objections by electors about third party eligibility for inclusion on the list of electors. No objection was lodged during the sittings for revision, reinforcing the opinion shared by the Chief Electoral Officer and the returning officers that the position of revising officer has become redundant, except for polling day, and could be eliminated. Returning officers and their assistants, who already have all the other powers of revising officers, could be given the authority to deal with objections.


Electors who are present in their riding, but know that they will be unable to vote at an advance poll or on polling day, can register to vote by special ballot. A total of 1 555 individuals registered for the special ballot in their electoral district. Atypically, all of them returned their ballots, although two were not counted because they arrived at the returning officer's office after the legal deadline of 4:00 p.m. on March 22. Electors who are out of their home riding during the election period can also vote by special ballot, but they had to send their completed ballots to Elections Canada in Ottawa before the same deadline.

Under the Special Voting Rules adapted for a by-election, members of the Canadian Forces vote by mail, like others who vote by special ballot outside their ridings. After the writs were issued, voting kits were automatically sent to Canadian Forces electors whose ordinary residence is in one of the six electoral districts. Of the 1 412 electors in the Canadian Forces to whom a kit was addressed at their base or mission site, 150 returned a completed ballot.

Similar rules apply to Canadians temporarily living abroad. As soon as the writs were issued, Elections Canada identified 102 electors listed on the International Register whose home address in Canada is in one of the six electoral districts, and sent each of them a voting kit. During the election period, five more applications for registration were received and accepted.

In the March 1996 by-elections, every incarcerated person, whatever the length of the sentence being served, whose ordinary residence was in one of the six electoral districts, was eligible to vote, following the December 27, 1995, decision handed down in Federal Court. After consulting the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society, Elections Canada sent signs, registration forms and guides to all custodial facilities in the country, announcing the by-elections and enabling registration for a mail-in vote. Fifty-four voting kits were sent to inmates eligible to vote in four of the six electoral districts; 44 ballots were returned before the deadline.

Acute Care Patients

Since 1993, people who are unexpectedly hospitalized during an election have been able to use the special ballot to vote from their hospital rooms. Preparations for organizing the vote in 18 acute care hospitals located in or near the six electoral districts began in February.

The Chief Electoral Officer wrote to the administrators of nine acute care hospitals located in the six ridings and nine hospitals outside the ridings, informing them how patients could cast their ballots. On March 17, the co-ordinators visited individual patients and handed out flyers on special ballot voting. On March 19 and 20, the co-ordinators collected ballots from 135 patients hospitalized within their electoral districts. Their special ballots were delivered to the appropriate returning officers before the March 22 deadline. In hospitals outside the ridings, 33 patients exercised their right to vote and their ballots were sent by courier to Elections Canada.

Table 1: Vote by special ballot

St. Barbe-
Baie Verte
Labrador Lac-
International 27 3 8 3 13 53 107 23 21.5
Canadian Forces 56 746 216 263 87 44 1 412 150 10.6
Incarcerated 0 23 21 9 1 0 54 44 81.5
National (incl.
hospital outside)
23 31 26 8 2 16 106 84 79.2
Local (incl. hospital
210 135 94 526 108 482 1 555 1 553 99.9
Total (Int'l, CF &
Incarcerated)(Gr. 1)
83 772 245 275 101 97 1 573 217 13.8
Total (Nat'l & Local)
(Gr. 2)
233 166 120 534 110 498 1 661 1 637 98.6
Grand Total 316 938 365 809 211 595 3 234 1 854 57.3


Three days of voting at the advance polls followed in all the ridings on Saturday March 16, and Monday and Tuesday, March 18 and 19. The polls were open from noon until 8:00 p.m. In total, 370 voters in Humber - St. Barbe - Baie Verte, 164 in Labrador, 1 047 in Lac-Saint-Jean, 1 242 in Papineau - Saint-Michel, 1 575 in Saint-Laurent - Cartierville, and 850 in Etobicoke North cast their ballots at the advance polls.

Polling Stations

One of the first tasks a returning officer has to handle is the selection of sites for polling stations. The location of the polls must be confirmed in the very first days of an election period, so that this information can be given to the printers responsible for printing the elector information cards distributed during enumeration. In Newfoundland, the task was complicated by a provincial general election already in progress. In some electoral districts, it is becoming more difficult to obtain the use of educational institutions. As the Canada Elections Act contains no provision specifying school closure for federal elections, in contrast to some provincial legislation, school boards are reluctant to allow polling stations in schools for security reasons. Although we have a data base of over 17 000 polling sites across the country, many of these are in schools. Now, in some areas, polling sites had to be located at the last minute in other buildings.

Thanks to the efforts of the returning officers and their staff, the addresses of 285 polling stations in the six electoral districts were finally confirmed. The premises included community centres, residential buildings, homes for the aged, municipal buildings, schools and parish halls.

Accessibility at Polling Stations

Elections Canada arranged to build 26 temporary ramps, one of them at the office of the returning officer for Saint-Laurent - Cartierville, making an additional 216 polling stations accessible. In spite of the efforts of the Humber - St. Barbe - Baie Verte and Labrador returning officers, it was impossible to provide level access at 24 polling sites serving 25 polling stations, because the premises did not allow for installation of temporary wheelchair ramps. Electors with restricted mobility had the option of asking the returning officer for a transfer certificate authorizing them to vote at another poll that did have level access.


Wednesday, March 20, five days before polling day, was the last day for revising the list of electors to be used at the polls. Anyone who wanted to be added to the list or to change information had until 6:00 p.m. to do so in person or by mail. Of the 13 500 mail-in registration cards left by enumerators, 3 064 (close to 23%) were returned, registering a total of 5 370 electors. Every single card left for electors in the Labrador riding was returned.

By the end of the period of revision that began on February 26, 363 names were added to the Humber - St. Barbe - Baie Verte list of electors, 19 were struck off and 1 414 were corrected. The corresponding figures for Labrador were 500, 15 and 36; for Lac-Saint-Jean, 533, 25 and 67; for Papineau - Saint-Michel, 1 720, 103 and 91; for Saint-Laurent - Cartierville, 2 710, 9 and 108; and for Etobicoke North, 1 556, 21 and 160.


As in the February 1995 by-elections, the Chief Electoral Officer made a ruling in the week before polling day under subsection 9(1) of the Canada Elections Act, which allows him to adapt provisions of the Act in keeping with the intent of the legislation. In this case, subsection 126(4) permits transfer certificates for deputy returning officers and poll clerks working at polling stations other than the one at which they may vote, if they are appointed after the advance polls. The Chief Electoral Officer extended this provision to central poll supervisors, information officers and revising officers and their assistants, who may not leave the polling stations where they work, so that they would not be deprived of their right to vote.


Six and one half weeks after the by-elections were called, they came to an end on polling day, Monday, March 25. The 885 ordinary polling stations were open from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., except in Paradise River and Black Tickle South in Labrador, where they opened from 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. This riding straddles two time zones and the returning officer decided, under section 324 of the Act, that opening hours would conform to Labrador City local time. An additional four mobile polling stations served voters in chronic care institutions. A total of 292 562 names appeared on the lists of electors drawn up for polling day.

Over 2 100 election officials were on duty at the polling stations on election day, including deputy returning officers, poll clerks, central poll supervisors, revising officers and assistants, information officers, interpreters and security officers.

On polling day, the Elections Canada Enquiries Unit was swamped with calls from electors seeking the address of their polling station. From the time the six by-elections were called, the enquiries officers received 8 355 calls, almost double the number of calls logged during the three 1995 by-elections and coming from the candidates and parties as well as members of the public. They also responded to some 30 information requests made via the Internet, where users could pose questions and record comments directly online. At the Elections Canada site, 32 798 accesses were recorded between February 7 and March 25, by Internet visitors who came to consult information on electoral districts, candidates, and the methods for registering and for voting in a by-election.