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Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada on the 40th General Election of October 14, 2008

1. Context of the 40th General Election

This section summarizes some of the issues in the environment that affected the way the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer (commonly known as Elections Canada) conducted the 40th general election in 2008.

1.1 Changes to Legislation

There has been considerable change to electoral law over the past few general elections. For the 40th general election, Elections Canada needed to implement several new legislative provisions.

Federal Accountability Act (Bill C-2)

The Federal Accountability Act, which received royal assent on December 12, 2006, contains provisions amending the Canada Elections Act. Several of these had implications for the conduct of the 40th general election:

  • Returning officers, previously appointed by the Governor in Council, are now appointed on their merits by the Chief Electoral Officer.
  • As of January 1, 2007, individuals' political contribution limits have been reduced from $5,000 to $1,000 (adjusted for inflation to $1,100 in 2008). Contributions from corporations, unions and unincorporated associations are now prohibited.
  • Candidates are now required to file a new confidential report for certain gifts they receive.

Other changes resulting from the passage of the Federal Accountability Act include:

  • transferring to the newly established Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions the responsibility for prosecuting offences under the Canada Elections Act
  • making the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer subject to the Access to Information Act

To fulfill the Chief Electoral Officer's new responsibility for merit-based appointment of returning officers, Elections Canada, in consultation with political parties, reappointed 187 currently serving returning officers and held public competitions across the country to appoint the remaining 121.

The new process makes the appointment of returning officers more accountable and transparent. However, the experience of the 40th general election suggests a possible need for refinements.

Operational provisions of An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Public Service Employment Act (Bill C-31)

Bill C-31 received royal assent on June 22, 2007. It deals with several areas of the electoral process, introducing new identification requirements for electors and various operational changes. Its provisions have come into force in phases, resulting in incremental implementation in several series of by-elections and the 40th general election.

Certain amendments to the Canada Elections Act resulting from this legislation were initially proposed in the Chief Electoral Officer's September 2005 recommendations report, Completing the Cycle of Electoral Reforms, issued following the 38th general election. Some amendments aimed to improve the accuracy of the National Register of Electors and enhance communications with the electorate. For instance, to facilitate the direct addition of new electors (especially youth) to the National Register of Electors, electors who communicate their information to Elections Canada through their income tax returns are now asked to declare explicitly that they are Canadian citizens. Before adding a new elector to the Register, Elections Canada will confirm the information obtained through this channel with the person providing that information.

Other provisions of Bill C-31 to improve operations include allowing returning officers to work on updating the National Register of Electors between elections, allowing all registered and eligible political parties to receive a copy of the preliminary lists of electors at the beginning of an election campaign, and giving campaign workers and candidates access to gated communities and a wide range of public places.

Some of these provisions were in force during the September 2007 by-elections and were discussed in the by-election report submitted to Parliament on March 31, 2008. Other provisions of Bill C-31 came into force on April 22, 2008:

  • A unique and stable identifier is assigned to each elector listed in the National Register of Electors.
  • Upon request, each registered party or eligible party will receive an electronic copy of the preliminary lists of electors for an electoral district for which a writ has been issued. Upon request, each candidate in an electoral district receives an electronic copy of the updated preliminary lists of electors 19 days before polling day; these lists will reflect any last-minute updates to the Register and the results of any revision activities to that day. As was the practice before, returning officers continue to provide to candidates revised lists of electors 11 days before election day and official lists of electors 3 days before election day.
  • Lists of electors used by election officials at the polls must now contain the full date of birth for each elector, making the security and control of these lists even more important.

New identification requirements (bills C-31 and C-18)

Another result of Bill C-31 has been the introduction of new requirements for electors to prove their identity and residence before they can be given a ballot on polling day or during advance voting. To do this, electors can choose from three ways set out in the Canada Elections Act:

  • They can provide one original piece of identification, issued by any level of government in Canada or an agency of that government. This must show the elector's photo, name and address.
  • They can provide two original pieces of identification from a list authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada. Both must show the name of the elector, and one must also show the elector's address.
  • They can swear an oath and be vouched for by an elector whose name appears on the list of electors in the same polling division and who has acceptable identification.

For the implementation of these new requirements, civic address information presented a particular challenge. Some electors, especially in rural and northern areas, do not have a complete civic address that would prove their residence within a polling division. These electors have only a mailing address, a post office box or a rural route number, or they rely on general delivery at the nearest post office. In total, 4.4 percent of electors listed in the National Register of Electors do not have a complete civic address.

Given these concerns, the initial voter identification requirements were amended in Bill C-18, in late 2007. The new legislation (S.C. 2007, c. 37) provides that an elector who shows a piece of identification on which the address is consistent with the information contained on the list of electors will be deemed to have established his or her residence.

The implementation of the identification requirements was a significant challenge in the conduct of the 40th general election. Elections Canada modified its communications and outreach activities and its training and voting procedures. Despite these efforts, the identification requirements appear to have presented difficulties for some electors (see Section 3.2, Voter Identification at the Polls).

1.2 Minority Situation

After each general election, Elections Canada conducts preparatory activities to return to and maintain electoral readiness, a process that takes at least six months. We set an election-readiness date after the election is closed. We work toward the target we have set by implementing known legislative changes required by that date, testing and implementing new information technology (IT) systems, ensuring that returning officers are ready, and regularly updating our documentation for election workers.

In a minority situation, the cycle of tasks must be repeated until a general election is called. Maintaining electoral readiness thus carries additional costs for Canadians. For example, there are operational expenses for the performance of basic pre-event planning assignments by returning officers, ensuring that Elections Canada Support Network staff is available and trained, and printing procedure manuals for field staff.

In a majority situation – and with fixed election dates – these activities can be planned well in advance and conducted only once, saving considerable effort and money.

1.3 Election Calendar

In 1996, changes to the Canada Elections Act reduced the election calendar from a minimum period of 47 days to a minimum period of 36 days.1 For the 39th general election, the calendar was extended to 55 days. It was 37 days for the 40th general election, with a day added because Monday, October 13, was a public holiday. During this brief period, Elections Canada ensured that 308 local Elections Canada offices and 119 additional local offices were set up and fully functioning. Such a short calendar leaves little room to accommodate unexpected challenges. For instance, the law is based on the assumption that local offices can be operational at the time the writs are issued. Returning officers act quickly to meet this requirement, but before they have a truly functional office they must sign a lease, obtain keys to the office space, and arrange for the delivery of furniture and equipment and for telephone installation.

1.4 By-elections

There were seven federal by-elections between the 39th and 40th general elections:

  • On September 17, 2007, by-elections were held in three electoral districts: Outremont, Roberval–Lac-Saint-Jean and Saint-Hyacinthe–Bagot. A report submitted to Parliament on March 31, 2008, provides details.
  • On March 17, 2008, by-elections were held in four electoral districts: Desnethé–Missinippi–Churchill River, Toronto Centre, Vancouver Quadra and Willowdale. Since these by-elections were held in the same year as the 40th general election, the details are provided in Appendix 3 of the present report.

On July 25, 2008, writs were issued for by-elections in the electoral districts of Guelph, Saint-Lambert and Westmount–Ville-Marie, to be held on September 8. On August 17, a by-election in the electoral district of Don Valley West was called for September 22. The plans were interrupted by the launch of the 40th general election on September 7, the day before polling day in three of the electoral districts. The writs for all the by-elections were deemed withdrawn in accordance with subsection 31(3) of the Parliament of Canada Act. All but two of the candidates registered for the superseded by-elections re-registered for the 40th general election; there were six new candidates.

The withdrawal of writs under these circumstances had a significant impact on participating political entities. For example, candidates running again had to legally account for signs that were put up for the by-election but that now constituted election expenses and election advertising in the general election, even though they had not yet appointed an official agent for that election. Furthermore, the Canada Elections Act requires candidates' representatives to keep separate financial records (including separate bank accounts) for separate campaigns, and file separate financial returns. And because contribution limits for candidates are set on a per-year basis, individuals who reached the annual limits in the by-elections could not contribute to candidates during the general election, which took place in the same year.

To help the candidates and parties involved, Elections Canada briefed the Advisory Committee of Political Parties, sent memoranda outlining the financial requirements to the candidates, and handled technical problems as they arose. It is rare for a by-election to be superseded. Still, the Act could better address the issues faced by candidates in this situation.

The withdrawal of these writs also had an impact on electors in the by-election ridings, especially people who had already voted at advance polls or who had registered or voted under the Special Voting Rules. Elections Canada wrote to these electors explaining that the by-elections had been cancelled and that the electors would have to vote again. The agency also placed staff in each of the polling locations in the three electoral districts where polling day would have been on September 8 to advise any electors who presented themselves to vote.

1.5 Strategic Plan 2008–2013

In fall 2007, after a comprehensive review of our internal and external environment, Elections Canada completed its Strategic Plan 2008–2013. The plan sets out three strategic objectives for our activities over the next four years:

  • Trust – Elections Canada will strive to maintain and strengthen the recognition among Canadians, whether they are electors or other participants in the electoral process, that we administer the Canada Elections Act in a fair, consistent, effective and transparent manner.
  • Accessibility – Elections Canada will strive to increase the accessibility of the electoral process by testing innovative ways to vote and offering electors additional ways to register.
  • Engagement – Elections Canada will strive to increase young Canadians' understanding of the importance of voting and becoming candidates in elections. We will seek to work more collaboratively with parliamentarians and political parties in further strengthening the electoral process.

Each of these objectives is supported by four key enablers: human resources, information technology systems, governance and communications. Our strategic plan provides us with a firm foundation and a framework to address the issues raised in this report.

The full text of the Strategic Plan 2008–2013 is posted on the Elections Canada Web site at under About Elections Canada.

1 The Canada Elections Act does not provide a maximum period.