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Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the Sherbrooke By-Election

The Sherbrooke by-election

On May 1, 1998, the Honourable Jean Charest, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and Member of Parliament for Sherbrooke, resigned his seat in the House of Commons. On August 9, 1998, the Governor in Council announced that the by-election to replace Mr. Charest would be held on September 14, 1998.

Upon this announcement, the Chief Electoral Officer issued a writ to the returning officer for Sherbrooke, directing him to hold a by-election. Table 1 provides an overview of the important milestones between the calling of a by-election and the return to the writ.

Table 1

Key dates for the September 1998 by-election in Sherbrooke
Date Election calendar day Event
 May 1    Member of Parliment for Sherbrooke,
 the Honourable Jean Charest, resigns
 August 9  Day 36  Issue of the writ; preparations made to open the
 office of the returning officer
 August 9 to 15  Days 36 to 30 (midnight)  Advertising blackout period for political parties
 August 11  Day 34  Proclamation published – candidates can file
 August 12  Day 33  Preliminary list of electors produced;
 revision of list of electors begins
 August 21  Day 24  Targeted revision begins
 August 19 to 21  Days 26 to 24  Mailing of notices of Confirmation of
 Registration to all registered electors
 August 24  Day 21 (2 p.m.)  Close of nomination of candidates
 September 3  Day 11  Revised list of electors distributed
 September 4, 5 and 7  Days 10, 9 and 7  Advance polls
 September 8  Day 6 (6 p.m.)  Revision and special ballot registration ends
 September 11  Day 3  Official list of electors distributed
 September 13 and 14  Days 1 and 0  Advertising blackout period for political parties
 September 14  Day 0  Election day
 September 15  Day -1  Official addition
 September 22  Day -8  Return to the writ

Communicating with electors

An important part of Elections Canada's task in the Sherbrooke by-election, as in all electoral events, was to generate awareness – among the general public, political parties, candidates, and the media – of the by-election and of the key dates in the election period.

The principal means of communicating with the general public was a householder, or pamphlet, sent to all residences in the electoral district within days of the issue of the writ. This short publication provided basic information, including the name and phone number for the office of the returning officer, information about the National Register of Electors, and details on how to have names added, or corrected, on the list of electors. It also gave information on deadlines for the return of special ballots, key dates for advance polls, procedures for registering and voting on election day, and the residency requirements for voting in a by-election. It also stressed the importance of keeping the notice of Confirmation of Registration until election day.

The notice, which arrived several days after the householder, provided details of where and when electors could vote, including the many alternatives that Elections Canada provides for electors unable or unwilling to go to their local polling station on election day. According to research undertaken by Elections Canada in Sherbrooke, this is the one piece of information found most useful by electors; 79 percent of electors in Sherbrooke remembered receiving it, and three-quarters of those remembered the information it contained.

The notices of Confirmation of Registration for the Sherbrooke by-election were produced directly in a camera-ready format by the returning officer, working from the SITES database – an automated database of addresses of all polling sites for advance and regular polls maintained by Elections Canada. This pilot project eliminated the need for the printer to enter and typeset the information, reducing both the possibility of errors and the amount of time needed to produce the cards.

All material was produced in both official languages. Census data revealed no ethnocultural or Aboriginal communities whose numbers would warrant translating basic information into other languages. However, key information was made available in alternative formats, including Braille, large print, and audio cassette, for those who required it.

Print advertisements were run in daily and community newspapers on two occasions. The first ad ran at the beginning of the revision period to explain how to have a name added to or corrected on the list of electors. The second ran a week before election day to remind electors that their polling station location was printed on their notice of Confirmation of Registration, and that they could register to vote at the poll. The advertisements were developed based on the campaign used in the last general election.

Elections Canada also worked closely with local media to ensure that residents had necessary information, supplying a media information kit containing the launch news release, the householder, an electoral district profile, and a calendar of key dates. In addition, the kit contained background information on a variety of topics, ranging from the electoral process and the role of Elections Canada, to the Special Voting Rules, the National Register of Electors, and elections expenses and contributions.

Over the course of the 36-day campaign, Elections Canada issued 10 news releases highlighting key deadlines, election day reminders, and clarification of what the media could and could not report on the weekend preceding election day.

The Sherbrooke by-election posed a particular challenge because of the presence of five colleges and universities in the electoral district. To be eligible to vote, electors had to have their place of ordinary residence in the electoral district by the 33rd day before election day, or August 12, 1998. Most students were not eligible to vote in the by-election, as they generally had not arrived on campus at that early date. Nonetheless, Elections Canada distributed some 2 300 brochures explaining voting procedures to students living in residences and set up an information booth at the Université de Sherbrooke to ensure students were aware of residence requirements for voting. No problems ensued concerning this matter.

A special by-election segment was also established on Elections Canada's Web site. The list of official candidates, the electoral district map, the address and telephone number of the office of the returning officer, and the Election Handbook for Candidates, Their Official Agents and Auditors were included in this segment, along with general information on the voting process and voting by mail-in ballot. On election night, results were posted on this Web page as they became available.

As well, Elections Canada Enquiries Unit staff were available to answer questions and distribute information to electors. The unit received 310 phone requests over the course of the campaign.

Revising the list of electors

Once again, data from the National Register of Electors were used to produce the preliminary list of electors for the Sherbrooke electoral district. This was the Register's second use in a by-election. Before the list was generated, the portion of the Register applicable to the district was updated to reflect the removal of deceased electors and those who requested to opt out of the Register

Residents of Sherbrooke who were eligible to vote but whose names were not on the preliminary list of electors, or those whose name and/or address were incorrect, were advised to contact the office of the returning officer to obtain a registration form or correct the error.

As in the Port Moody–Coquitlam by-election, those wishing to have their names added to the list of electors could do so by supplying their name, address, gender, signature, previous address, and date of birth. Further identification was required only if this information could not be corroborated with information already in the National Register of Electors. This process was aided by the use of the Elector Search Utility (ESU), a confidential, secure, and bilingual system that permits electoral officials to search for pertinent registration information. First used in the Port Moody–Coquitlam by-election, the ESU was updated for the Sherbrooke by-election.

With the advent of the National Register of Electors, Elections Canada has modified its procedures for revising the list of electors, intensifying revision activities in specific areas of an electoral district as needed. This activity is referred to as targeted revision. For the Sherbrooke by-election, Elections Canada undertook a targeted revision to add the names of electors from new housing developments and high-mobility areas to the preliminary list of electors. Agents distributed 168 kits to new housing developments and another 1 505 kits to areas of high mobility, such as high-rise apartment buildings. As well, revising agents went to institutions such as long-term care facilities to revise the list to include those residents eligible to vote and not already on the preliminary list of electors. As a result of these three initiatives, 677 electors were added to the list.

Figure 1 shows the percentage of electors registered by each method of registration.

Figure 1
Methods of registration,
September 1998 by-election in Sherbrooke

N = 6 863 voters added
(the final list contains 75 700 names)

Registrations following the notice of Confirmation of Registration 54%, Registrations during advance polling 2%, Registrations on election day 34%, Registrations during targeted revision 10%.

The period for revision of the preliminary list of electors lasted from August 12, three days after the writ was issued, until September 8, six days before election day. Changes to the list of electors during this 28-day period and the number of electors on the final list of electors, including those who registered at their polling stations on election day, are recorded in Table 2.

Table 2

List of electors revision transactions1
 Lists of electors Number of
Corrections Additions Deletions Net result
 Preliminary list2 74 793 Day 33 to day 11 149 3 581 4 702 - 1 121
 Revised list3 73 672 Day 10 to day 6   21    932    624   + 308
 Official list4 73 980 Election day 247 2 350    630 + 1 720
Day 33 to day 6
election day
417 6 863 5 956   + 907
 Final list 75 7005  

1 Excluding lists of electors voting by special ballot outside Canada, in detention centres or as members of the Canadian Forces.
2 The preliminary list is prepared at the beginning of the electoral period with data extracted from the National Register of Electors.
3 The revised list is produced so that voting can be held at advance polling stations.
4 The official list is produced so that voting can be held at regular polling stations on election day.
5 This figure corresponds to the final list, prepared as soon as possible after the election.

Voting in the by-election

A total of 37 027 electors cast their ballot in the Sherbrooke by-election. The majority voted on election day, September 14, 1998, at one of the 210 polling stations located throughout the electoral district. Polling stations were open from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. For those unable to vote on election day, advance polls were held on September 4, 5 and 7. Table 3 provides details about polling places.

Table 3
Polling sites

Location of polling sites
Building types Number
of sites
Community centre  2   5%
Educational  5 12%
Retirement home 19  46%
Church hall  9 22%
Hospital  2   5%
Recreation centre  2   5%
Commercial site  2   5%
Total 41 100% 

Types of polling stations
Ordinary Mobile Advance Total
204  6 9 219

Polling station accessibility
 Total number of polling stations  Accessible polling stations  Percentage
219  219   100%

As is always the case during elections or by-elections, residents of the electoral district unable to vote at the advance or ordinary polls, as well as residents who were travelling or residing outside Canada temporarily, could vote by special mail-in ballot under the Special Voting Rules. Canadians abroad were notified of their opportunity to cast a ballot in the by-election by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade through its diplomatic missions and consular posts. Soldiers posted to Canadian Forces bases, whether inside or outside Canada, were informed of their right to vote by the Department of National Defence (please see Table 4).

Table 4

Registrations under the Special Voting Rules
Categories of electors asking to vote under the Special Voting Rules Number of ballots requested
Group 11
Members of the Canadian Forces 301
Incarcerated electors  63
Electors residing outside Canada temporarily  37
Group 1 subtotal 401
Group 22
Electors temporarily outside their electoral districts 0
Electors voting in their electoral districts 342
Group 2 subtotal 342
Total number of registrations 743

1 The three lists of electors registered under group 1 of the Special Voting Rules are separate from the list that is revised during an election.
2 The electors registered under group 2 of the Special Voting Rules are also entered on the revised list of electors.

As well, persons in institutions, including hospitals and correctional facilities, were permitted to vote in the by-election under the Special Voting Rules. Registration and voting in acute care hospitals was held on September 7 and 8. To facilitate special voting in correctional facilities, information kits were supplied to the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies.

Voter turn-out was 48.7 percent, compared to 36.0 percent for the Port Moody–Coquitlam by-election and 73.5 percent for the Sherbrooke electoral district in the June 1997 general election. Preliminary statistics on the number of ballots cast by all means are presented in Table 5.

Table 5

Preliminary statistics on the number of ballots cast and voter turnout,
September 1998 by-election in Sherbrooke
Number of
electors on
final list
Voting Rules
Total votes
Total valid
76 1011 34 058 2 582 387 37 028 582 36 446 48.66%

1 This figure includes electors on the National Register of Electors (please see Table 2), as well as electors registered under group 1 of the Special Voting Rules (please see Table 4).
2 Voter turnout is the ratio (expressed as a percentage) of the total number of electors who voted (including those whose ballots were rejected) to the number of electors on the final list established after election day.

The candidates and by-election results

The deadline for the nomination of candidates was 2 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, on August 24; 5 p.m. was the deadline for withdrawal or for making corrections to information on candidates' nomination papers. Eight candidates were nominated for the by-election, representing seven political parties. One candidate ran as an independent. Once nominations were closed, lists of candidates were transmitted to Canadian diplomatic missions and consular posts by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and to Canadian Forces bases by the Department of National Defence and were posted on the Elections Canada Web site.

On election night, the returning officer's Election Results System was linked to Elections Canada's central computer; as votes were counted, they were transmitted to the Ottawa server for posting on the Web site.

Bloc Québécois candidate Serge Cardin received the most votes and was elected Member of Parliament for Sherbrooke (please see Table 6).

Of the eight candidates, only the two who received more than 15 percent of votes cast were eligible for reimbursement of part of their deposit and of their election expenses.

Finally, the Chief Electoral Officer has forwarded allegations of irregularities surrounding the Sherbrooke by-election to the Commissioner of Canada Elections for his review. Under the Canada Elections Act, where there are reasonable grounds to believe that an election officer may have committed an offence against the Act, the Chief Electoral Officer can direct the Commissioner to make such inquiry as appears to be called for in the circumstances.

Table 6

Preliminary statistics on valid votes cast, September 1998 by-election in Sherbrooke
  Candidate Political affiliation Valid votes
  Archambault, Robert Progressive Conservative Party of Canada 2 303         6.31        
  Bolduc, Marcel Reform Party of Canada 934         2.56        
  Bousquet, Jacques The Green Party of Canada 254         0.69        
  Cardin, Serge* Bloc Québécois 16 143         44.29        
  Goulet, Sébastien New Democratic Party 720         1.97        
  Lachapelle, Serge Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada 72         0.19        
  Pouliot, Robert Y.* Liberal Party of Canada 15 923         43.68        
  Turmel, John C. Independent 97         0.26        
  Total   36 446           100.00        

* Having obtained at least 15 percent of the valid votes cast, these candidates were eligible for partial reimbursement of their deposit and election expenses.

Improving the administration of electoral events

As part of efforts to ensure that all electoral events are administered in the most efficient manner possible, several members of Elections Canada's staff visited the office of the returning officer during the by-election period to observe and to provide advice as required.

In addition, Elections Canada surveyed all deputy returning officers (DROs) involved in the Sherbrooke by-election. The objectives of the survey, which was conducted on election day, were to assess the usefulness and appropriateness of the materials provided to poll officials; gather information on services to electors at polling stations that is not readily available to election administrators; assess whether the role of candidates' agents (scrutineers) at the polls is fully understood by all concerned and whether candidates exercise their right to be represented; and assess the quality of the training DROs received.

The survey questionnaire was used as a pilot project in this by-election. Once evaluated, it will be adapted for use in future by-elections to give Elections Canada a first-hand account of what goes on at polling stations.