open Secondary menu

2. Preparing for the Election – Report on the 43rd General Election of October 21, 2019

While Elections Canada headquarters staff plays a large role in the planning and execution of events, it is mainly the returning officers in Canada's 338 electoral districts who deliver the election to Canadians. Extensive efforts are made at the local level to prepare and carry out the election.

2.1. Recruitment of Returning Officers

Under section 24 of the Canada Elections Act, the Chief Electoral Officer is required to appoint a returning officer for each electoral district for a period of 10 years. The Chief Electoral Officer specifies the qualifications required for the position and establishes an external, merit-based appointment process. Between 2016 and 2019, the Chief Electoral Officer appointed 146 returning officers.

Returning officer recruitment advertisement
Text version of "Returning officer recruitment advertisement"

2.2. Preparatory Work by Returning Officers

Taking advantage of a fixed election date, returning officers were engaged much earlier and more extensively in preparing for the 2019 general election. The Chief Electoral Officer provided all 338 returning officers mandates with specific tasks to allow them to prepare in advance of the 43rd general election.

Pre-election activities were launched in April 2018 and carried out over 18 months. A new methodology was developed to help select polling places. In addition, returning officers began their outreach activities much earlier than during previous general elections. These new activities are described below.

On June 3, 2019, the Chief Electoral Officer authorized all returning officers to secure and sign leases effective September 1 for returning offices, additional assistant returning offices, polling places, and external service points. Elections Canada set June 30 as the deadline for business processes, systems, and instruction and training packages to be ready. 

Selecting polling places and defining polling divisions

After the 42nd general election, Elections Canada developed its Policy on Selecting Suitable Polling Places as part of an effort to improve the voting experience. According to this new policy, a suitable polling place balances the key principles of accessibility, familiarity, and proximity to an elector's residence. In the summer of 2018, the agency asked returning officers to identify polling locations that met the first two criteria. Returning officers were then provided with new software to help them design polling divisions around the selected polling locations. Returning officers were also tasked to reach out to every First Nations reserve in Canada to plan the appropriate number of advance and election day polling places to meet community needs.

For the first time in a federal election, returning officers were able to use routing data and geographic information with automated software that suggested alternative assignment of electors to a selected polling location, to further reduce electors' travel distance to the polls. Following the completion of these preparatory activities, 95 percent of electors in urban areas were within 3.5 kilometres of their polling day places, and within 13.9 kilometres in rural areas. In 2015, the figures were 3.7 kilometres (urban) and 14.8 kilometres (rural).

Elections Canada also expanded its Polling Place Suitability Checklist, used for evaluating the accessibility of potential polling places. In consultation with the agency's Advisory Group for Disability Issues, the 35 accessibility criteria increased to 37. Fifteen of these criteria are mandatory; the new criteria involved specifications on the pathway from a parking lot to a building's entrance and for the distance from public transit stops. The accessibility of each polling location was published on the voter information card, with more detailed information available on the Elections Canada website.

When voter information cards were produced, 94.3 percent of polling places met all 15 mandatory criteria, while 3 percent provided level access but did not meet some or all of the other 14 criteria and could not be modified. This is down from 96 percent of polling places meeting all mandatory criteria in the 2015 general election. Further analysis will be provided in the retrospective report.

Local community relations and outreach

As part of their pre-election preparations, returning officers were tasked with several local outreach activities that are normally done at the call of the election.

As in the past, returning officers were asked to evaluate, within their electoral districts, the needs of electors known to face barriers when participating in the electoral process. These include students, seniors, electors with disabilities, and Indigenous, homeless, and ethnocultural electors (including official language minority and Jewish electors). The returning officer would then decide on the appointment of the appropriate number of community relations officers to liaise with electors in these groups. The returning officer would also create an action plan for the community relations officers to complete. The plan included activities such as presentations, setting up kiosks and information distribution.

Elections Canada carried out the Elector Services in Remote Indigenous Communities (ESRIC) pilot project over the 18 months leading up to the election. This project encouraged communication between returning officers and Indigenous leaders from remote communities at several points in the electoral cycle. The role of community relations officers and the ESRIC pilot are further discussed in Section 4.2.

Returning officers reviewed addresses in high-mobility neighbourhoods, new housing developments, First Nations reserves, long-term care facilities, and post-secondary residences. They then developed plans for targeted revision, including setting up public desks where electors could register or update their information.

Returning officers contacted correctional facilities to confirm the numbers of inmates and discuss security, recruitment, and training of election officers to deliver the vote to these electors.

Finally, returning officers in electoral districts with electors working in isolated areas (such as lighthouses or remote work sites) contacted administrators at those locations to provide information on voting options for these electors.

2.3. Stakeholder Mobilization

Elections Canada significantly expanded the network of national and regional stakeholders who shared information with electors who face barriers to voting, such as Indigenous electors, new electors and people with disabilities. Work with these organizations leveraged Elections Canada's new online learning modules and event toolkits developed for the Inspire Democracy program. These tools explained the steps and choices related to registration, voting and other ways to participate in elections, such as working at an election and running for office.

To share this content, Elections Canada staff conducted face-to-face outreach events across the country designed to equip stakeholders with the tools and knowledge necessary to conduct their own outreach efforts in advance of the general election. The primary focus was on early registration and closing registration gaps among Indigenous and youth electors.

2.4. Gender-inclusive Services

In the lead-up to the 2015 general election, the agency became aware of issues arising from services to electors with non-traditional gender expressions. Some of the issues arose from identity verification at the polls, despite the fact that electors are not required to prove sex or gender as part of their identity. In collaboration with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and gender advocacy organizations, Elections Canada adapted its 2015 communications materials along with its instructions and training to election workers in order to address concerns expressed by the transgender community. These concerns involved potential difficulties in proving identity and address. There were also concerns about how Elections Canada collected gender information on its various forms and certificates—specifically, by requiring electors to state whether they are male or female when they may not identify as either. After the 42nd general election, the agency began to update its approaches to the collection of gender data.

By the fall of 2018, Elections Canada decided to offer three gender options on its public forms and systems, including the online registration service prior to the 2019 general election: male, female and gender X. This decision was in line with both removing all references to "sex" and replacing them with "gender" in accordance with Bill C-76; and with the Government of Canada's policy direction to modernize sex and gender information practices, which was introduced in April 2019. The agency also broadened the approach taken in 2015 and worked with community groups to include a specific set of frequently asked questions on its website about identification guidelines for transgender electors. Despite these efforts, some issues still surfaced in the 2019 general election: for instance, voter information cards displayed the previous names of electors due to processing times. Elections Canada will continue to update its data collection practices and work with the community to ensure it is using gender-inclusive practices in all aspects of the electoral process.

2.5. Simulation 2019

Returning officers faced a much-changed environment for the 43rd general election, with a new security environment, systems, partners, procedures, and legislation. Above all, large numbers of staff in both headquarters and the field were new, and even seasoned staff had not administered a general election since 2015. To assist with the volume of changes, build election reflexes and test newly developed tools, procedures or refinements including those required for Bill C-76 implementation, the agency conducted a structured election simulation in April 2019.

The simulation took place over three weeks and involved headquarters personnel and the offices of five electoral districts that reflected the diversity of ridings across the country. The objective was to test new information technology systems, updated business processes, manuals and training material in a setting that closely resembled an actual election. The simulation involved scenario-based exercises that helped returning officers and staff use the new business process, systems, and training materials—and react to unforeseen circumstances. The simulation helped build confidence in the agency's state of readiness and the new tools developed to deliver the election. After the simulation, final adjustments were made to deal with communicational or operational gaps. Updated system procedures and materials were rolled out in time for the call of the election in each of the 338 electoral districts.

2.6. Recruitment of Election Workers

Amendments to the Canada Elections Act enabled returning officers to begin recruiting as soon as the election was called. Returning officers aimed to hire more than 248,000 election workers assigned to voting locations. This recruiting target aimed at improving early voting services and working conditions for election workers by introducing scheduled breaks and a shift-work option, in response to feedback from the 2015 general election.

Election worker recruitment advertisement
Text version of "Election worker recruitment advertisement"

Returning officers were encouraged to increase the representation among election workers of people with disabilities, new Canadians, Indigenous people, linguistic minorities, and young people. All electoral districts were permitted to hire 16- and 17-year-old workers. The agency also launched its first national digital recruitment campaign. A series of advertisements increased awareness of various local job opportunities and encouraged Canadians to apply online. The agency also developed communication tools to support and empower returning officers and stakeholders in helping recruit election workers. As a result, returning officers received nearly 550,000 applications through the Elections Canada website, compared with 243,934 for the 2015 election and 130,427 for the 2011 election, when people were first able to apply online. In addition, political parties referred nearly 30,000 potential workers to returning officers. For the 43rd general election, returning officers retained about 232,000 workers, including about 18,000 office staff working in Elections Canada offices and about 214,000 electoral workers assigned to polling sites. Roughly 10,000 trained workers did not show up for work at their polling station (about 5 percent). Table 1 in the Appendix provides more details.

Several returning officers encountered difficulties recruiting and retaining enough poll workers. An initial assessment indicates that this was the case in 89 of the 338 electoral districts. In 20 electoral districts, the percentage of trained workers who did not show up for work at their polling station was about 15 percent. These no-shows affected operations, especially where returning officers had not been notified ahead of time. In such cases, returning officers had to dispatch replacement staff, if any were available, and materials. If no replacement staff were available, central poll supervisors had no other option but to merge polls (i.e. have one team of election officers and one ballot box serving two polling divisions). The impact of these challenges on the service to electors and their root causes will be further discussed in the retrospective report, along with the level of satisfaction of election workers and their new working conditions.

2.7. Action on Official Languages

The agency made significant efforts before and during the 43rd general election to implement measures that responded to the audit reports of the Commissioner of Official Languages, which were released in July 2015 and in May 2019. Elections Canada developed directives, policies and user-friendly operational tools to help returning officers plan the delivery of services and activities in accordance with the agency's official languages obligations. These tools were distributed in June 2019, which coincided with preparations for the election worker recruitment campaign. Returning officers and election workers were also responsible for ensuring that all reasonable efforts were made to provide high-quality communications and services in both official languages at polling stations across the country. That point was emphasized during election workers' training.

To better understand the linguistic realities of each electoral district, Elections Canada and returning officers analyzed data from the 2016 Census. This exercise enabled field administrators to focus their efforts and allocation of resources (e.g. recruitment, training, communications and information) to better serve linguistic minorities.

Elections Canada has implemented a rapid management process intended to quickly adjust services and respond to official languages complaints filed with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages and with Elections Canada. As of January 8, 2020, Elections Canada had received 115 complaints related to the 43rd general election through the Commissioner of Official Languages, 57 of which were received during the election period. All complaints brought to the attention of the agency were quickly acted upon in concert with the relevant returning officer. These follow-ups allowed returning officers to address issues in a timely manner and prevent similar situations from reoccurring.

Elections Canada is undertaking a thorough analysis of the official languages file. The conclusions and recommendations of that analysis will be presented in the retrospective report.

2.8. New Training and Guidebooks for Field Personnel

The Canada Elections Act requires that an independent assessment of the compliance of poll workers with the prescriptions of the Act must be carried out after an election. Following the audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers in October 2015, Elections Canada overhauled its guidebooks for election workers as part of its efforts to optimize the voting process, as detailed in Section 3, and improve compliance with procedures. Virtually all tools and documents used at the polls were redeveloped with a user-friendly design and to account for the legislative changes brought by Bill C-76. The agency set out to create final products that were consistent, easy to use, and written in plain language.

Guidebooks for field personnel
Text version of "Guidebooks for field personnel"

The guidebooks are a cornerstone of the agency's training program for election workers. The in-class portion of this program involved hands-on practice with simulated election materials. Election workers became more self-reliant, leveraging the guidebooks to resolve various situations at the polls. The program also expanded the use of multimedia, with engaging new videos and animations on key subjects.

In addition to in-class improvements, the agency also deployed online training materials to a range of key office personnel, including election administrators, training officers, recruitment officers, and financial officers. The online training materials made use of interactive e-learning modules, videos, quizzes, reading activities, and other multimedia assets to provide a larger volume and variety of preparatory material. A full assessment of these changes will be available in the retrospective report.

2.9. More Support for Returning Officers

With a majority government in place and a fixed election date, Elections Canada was able to better support returning officers by providing improvements to outdated systems, offering more integrated systems and business processes. To that end, the agency made three new major improvements to help returning officers fulfill their responsibilities and connect with headquarters.

First, Elections Canada rolled out VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) technology for the phone systems in all 338 returning offices and 165 additional assistant returning offices—a first for the agency. This allowed for a rapid deployment of a full-featured office phone system across the country.

Second, in response to returning officers' concerns about having many different communication channels and inadequate support on specialized topics, the agency instituted a new field support model with agents trained on specific topics and improved training to better assist returning officers. This was combined with a new web-based tool called Event +. This tool served as a single access point for all regular communications between the field and headquarters, including election-related and electoral district-specific communications. Event + also included the election calendar, together with a series of electronic checklists for the returning officer, the service point supervisor, the financial officer and the automation coordinator. These workers now had easy-to-use lists of tasks for each day of the election calendar, along with supporting documents.

Finally, the agency introduced EC Connex, a new online case management system. EC Connex is a shared tool for all headquarters employees who provide support and services to the field and the agency's contact centres. With EC Connex, all staff had access to Elections Canada's knowledge base, where staff and contact centre employees were able to find the needed content and procedures to resolve enquiries, complaints or requests for support from field staff. EC Connex also allowed for more efficient routing and near real-time monitoring of records in the system as they were processed.

Elections Canada has received post-election reports from returning officers, including feedback on the contact centre agent support, material, and technological support offered to them by Elections Canada headquarters. Their perspective on the 43rd general election will be included in the retrospective report.

2.10. Accommodating Electors Observing Jewish Holidays

In the summer of 2018, Elections Canada examined the implications of having the date of the 43rd general election and most of the advance polling dates coincide with Jewish High Holy Days. The rules governing fixed date elections allow the Chief Electoral Officer to make a recommendation to the Governor in Council that the date be moved due to a conflict with religious or cultural holidays. While a similar situation occurred in 2008, recommending a change of date was not an option since it was not a fixed date election. In August 2018, following exchanges with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Elections Canada determined that it would be in a position to offer a broad range of early voting opportunities that could meet the needs of the Jewish community. Elections Canada and CIJA began to work together to ensure effective communication about early and alternative voting options.

In the spring of 2019, Jewish community members raised concerns about the date of the general election through letters and public enquiries. Among this correspondence was a letter from a recently nominated Orthodox Jewish candidate, Ms. Chani Aryeh-Bain, noting the effect of the fixed election date on her Charter rights as a candidate. She and others requested that the Chief Electoral Officer exercise his discretion to recommend to the Governor in Council that election day be moved. The Chief Electoral Officer declined to do so, on the basis that the impact of changing the date of the election at that point in the electoral cycle would limit access to voting opportunities for the electorate as a whole, given the work completed at that point to select convenient and accessible polling locations, including agreements made with schools and school boards regarding the timing of professional development days.

Ms. Aryeh-Bain and Mr. Ira Walfish, a community activist, then brought an application in the Federal Court of Canada to review the Chief Electoral Officer's decision. On July 23, 2019, the court directed the Chief Electoral Officer to reconsider his decision and to provide reasons that reflected a proportionate balancing of the rights of the applicants under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms with his mandate. The Chief Electoral Officer did so in a detailed statement released on July 29, 2019, indicating that it would not be advisable to recommend changing the date of the election at that late stage of the electoral cycle. It also featured an action plan, which is further discussed in Section 3.3 of the report, to ensure voting opportunities for electors observing Jewish holidays.

Elections Canada recognizes the need to better consult, early in its election planning stage, religious and cultural communities. As part of its analysis of the election and recommendations to Parliament, Elections Canada will consult with the Jewish and other communities and examine ways to better address the needs of observant electors in the future, with a view to avoiding conflicts between important religious holidays and election days whenever possible.

2.11. New Voter Identification Requirements

Voter identification requirements in the Canada Elections Act were amended in 2018. Some of these changes allowed the Chief Electoral Officer to authorize the voter information card (VIC) as a proof of address, along with another piece of accepted ID bearing the same name, as proof of identity. The changes also allowed an elector to establish their identity and address by making a solemn declaration and being vouched for by another elector. This replaced the previous process whereby an elector with two pieces of ID bearing their name could take an oath and have their address attested to by another elector who lives in the same polling district.

For the 43rd general election, electors had three options to prove their identity and address:

  1. Show one piece of government-issued identification with their photo, name and current address, such as a driver's licence, or provincial or territorial identification card.
  2. Show two pieces of identification from the list of authorized pieces of identification. Both pieces must contain the elector's name and one must include their current address.
  3. Declare their identity and address in writing and have another elector—whose name appears on the list of electors for the same polling station—vouch for them. Both electors must make a solemn declaration and the voucher must have proved their identity and address using one of the first two options. A person can vouch for only one person (except in long-term care institutions).

Voter identification infographic
Text version of "Voter identification infographic"

Following an internal review and online testing of mock VICs and the list of authorized pieces of ID, Elections Canada made several changes, including administrative changes, to assist electors in proving their identity and address. These included:

  • Improvements to the VIC to signal that it is addressed only to the elector whose name is on the card, to encourage electors to visit the Elections Canada website to verify that their registration information is up to date, and to clarify where electors can find more information on accessibility services and ways to vote.
  • Enhancements to the list of accepted pieces of ID, such as the addition of pictures and categories, to make voter ID options and the list of accepted ID clearer for electors and election workers.
  • Expanding the scope of the Policy on Voter Identification when Registering and Voting in Person in Federal Electoral Events to include all in-person voting and registration contexts. The update to the Policy also added precision to the criteria by which the Chief Electoral Officer authorizes pieces of ID, and employed the use of plain language wherever possible.

The Chief Electoral Officer also authorized new pieces on the list of ID to increase electors' access while continuing to protect the integrity of the vote. These included the temporary confirmation of registration, issued by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. In addition, the Chief Electoral Officer added community-based residential facilities to the list of establishments approved to provide a letter of confirmation of residence.

Post-election studies will examine the impact and application of the voter identification requirements in this election, and details will be included in the retrospective report.

2.12. Opening Elections Canada Offices

Returning officers opened 338 returning offices and 165 additional assistant returning offices in 91 of the geographically largest electoral districts in the country. The fixed election date, the new 51-day limit on the election period and instructions from the Chief Electoral Officer allowed returning officers to prepare farther in advance. Therefore, at the start of the election period on September 11, 2019, all 503 Elections Canada offices were open to the public during regular business hours for special ballot and voter registration services.

Issue of the writs

On September 11, 2019, the Governor General dissolved the 42nd Parliament at the request of the Prime Minister, and writs of election were issued for all 338 federal electoral districts. The date for the 43rd general election was set by proclamation of the Governor General as October 21. Advance polls were held one week before election day from October 11 to 14. The election period lasted 41 days.