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The Evolution of the Federal Electoral Process

The lists of electors

In 1917, the first federal list of electors was created using the provincial lists of electors. It wasn't until 1930 that a federal enumeration process was established, where election officers went door-to-door to create the list.

In 1934, Elections Canada tried to develop a permanent list of electors. It was used in the 1935 election, and then abandoned in 1938. The technology of the time couldn't overcome the logistical obstacles. By the early 1990s, however, technology had evolved to where customized software could produce lists of electors in a format that could be imported into most word processing, spreadsheet and database software applications. Since the October 1992 federal referendum, computerized lists of electors have been produced using specially designed software.

In 1996, the Canada Elections Act and the Referendum Act were amended. The last door-to-door federal enumeration was held in April 1997. It was used to create the National Register of Electors. The Register is now the basis for the preliminary lists of electors for federal electoral events. By eliminating door-to-door enumeration, the legislation also reduced the election period from a minimum of 47 days to 37.

In 2019, additional amendments to the Canada Elections Act created the National Register of Future Electors. This is a list of 14- to 17-year-old Canadians and is used to automatically update the National Register of Electors when they turn 18.

Voting procedures

The Special Voting Rules, first introduced during World War I, provide electors who are unable to get to their polling stations either on election day or at the advance polls with a means to vote that protects both the security and the secrecy of their ballots. Eligibility to vote by special ballot has been extended several times since its inception; it has been almost universal since 1993. In 2019, amendments to the Canada Elections Act lifted restrictions on voting by special ballot for Canadian citizens living abroad for more than five years. The restrictions—which included an obligation to declare an intent to return to live in Canada—had been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada earlier in the year.

In 1996, the times for opening and closing the polls on election day were staggered across time zones, so that a majority of the results are available at approximately the same time across the country. The length of time the polls are open for voting was increased 12 hours, and the number of hours that must be available to employees to vote during the time that the polls are open was reduced to 3.

Between 1920 and 1993, only certain categories of electors were permitted to vote at advance polls. Today any elector may vote at the advance polls. In 2014, a fourth day of advance polling was added, with advance polling stations now open on the Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday a week before election day. In 2019, advance polling hours were also extended from 9 hours to 12 hours for each day of advance polls.

Since 2000, an elector who, because of a disability, cannot go to a polling station or to an Elections Canada office, or who cannot read, may vote at home in the presence of an election officer and a witness chosen by the elector. In 2019, the Canada Elections Act was changed to broaden the types of disability addressed and expand the statutory requirement that polling stations must be accessible. It made other accommodations for electors with disabilities, like transfer certificates, easier to access. In addition, the Chief Electoral Officer may devise and test alternative voting techniques for future use.

Transfer certificates were introduced in 1920 for candidates and their representatives, and certain election officers whose work made it impossible for them to vote at their own polling stations on election day. Eligibility for transfer certificates was extended in 1977 and again in 1992, 2000 and 2019.

Candidates and parties

In 1948, candidates were required to be qualified as electors. In 1970, the number of signatures required on a candidate's nomination papers was increased from 10 to 25 (a return to the number required before 1920). In 1993, the number increased again to 100. For the large and sparsely populated electoral districts listed in Schedule 3 of the Act, the number of signatures is 50. In 1993, the deposit required at nomination was increased from $200 to $1,000. This deposit requirement was repealed in 2019, after a provincial court found it to be unconstitutional.

Since 1970, parties have had the option of registering with the Chief Electoral Officer. Registration brings with it strict reporting requirements, but also several benefits. For example, a candidate endorsed by a registered party may have the party affiliation shown on the ballot, and registered parties are entitled to an allotment of paid and free broadcasting time during general elections. There are also financial advantages to registration. For example, registered parties are eligible for reimbursement of a percentage of their election expenses, according to a formula set out in the legislation, and donations to the party are tax deductible, with a maximum tax credit of $650.

In 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that provisions in the Canada Elections Act requiring a registered party to nominate at least 50 candidates in a general election infringed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Parliament amended the Act to allow the registration of any party that runs at least one candidate in a general election or by-election and complies with the other registration requirements of the Act.

The number of registered political parties increased from 4 at the 1972 general election to 12 at the general election of 2004. The number of candidates standing for election federally has increased significantly over the years: from 632 in 1921 to 1,808 in 2000. The number declined to 1,685 in 2004, partly because of the merger of two major political parties.

Third parties

A third party is a person or group that wants to participate in or influence elections other than as a political party, electoral district association, nomination contestant or candidate. Third parties are regulated somewhat differently in the pre-election period and election period. Third parties are not reimbursed for expenses related to regulated activities, and they cannot issue tax receipts under the Canada Elections Act for contributions received to fund regulated activities.

Please consult the Political Financing Handbook for Third Parties, Financial Agents and Auditors (EC 20227) for more details.


Political parties were not allowed to issue income tax receipts for contributions before 1974. At that time, political parties became subject to an election expenses limit and had to disclose revenues and expenses in a return submitted to the Chief Electoral Officer. In 1996, the Canada Elections Act was amended so that only registered parties that received at least 2 percent of the valid votes cast nationally or at least 5 percent of the valid votes cast in the electoral districts in which they endorsed a candidate were eligible to receive the reimbursement of 22.5 percent of their election expenses, as provided for in the Act.

In 2003, Parliament amended the Act to significantly tighten the rules for political contributions and the financial activities of parties and candidates. Among other provisions, the new legislation introduced limits on political contributions and a ban on contributions from unions and corporations to registered parties and their leadership contestants.

The amendments also extended those provisions to cover electoral district associations and nomination and leadership contestants. Political entities also had to register and report on their activities. Financial reports for registered political parties and registered associations must now include statements of assets and liabilities, as well as all sources of revenue and contributions, including non-monetary contributions.

The amendments also established a publicly funded system of quarterly allowances for registered political parties, based on the number of votes they obtained in the previous general election. In 2012, further amendments phased out the quarterly allowances by 2015.

In 2019, some changes were introduced to the reimbursements to parties. If they comply with the financial reporting provisions of the Canada Elections Act and receive at least 2 percent of the valid votes cast nationally or 5 percent of the valid votes cast in electoral districts where they endorsed candidates, registered parties are eligible for:

  • a reimbursement of 50 percent of their paid election expenses for a general election; and
  • a reimbursement of 90 percent of their paid accessibility expenses for a general election, up to a maximum of $250,000.

Candidates may issue tax receipts for contributions to their campaigns and receive a partial reimbursement of their expenses. A candidate who is elected, or obtains at least 10 percent of the valid votes cast in the electoral district, receives a reimbursement of 15 percent of the expenses limit for that electoral district shortly after the return of the writs. If the candidate also complies with all the post-election requirements of the Act, they qualify for a second installment representing a reimbursement of the following, minus the amount already received:

  • 60 percent of their paid election expenses, paid travel and living expenses, and paid personal expenses (other than personal expenses detailed below);
  • 90 percent of their paid childcare expenses and expenses relating to the provision of care for a person with a physical or mental incapacity for whom the candidate normally provides such care; and
  • 90 percent of paid accessibility expenses, to a maximum of $5,000.


Until 1992, there was no federal referendum legislation. The 1992 referendum was the first and only event ever conducted under the Referendum Act. Previous plebiscites were held under enabling legislation.

Electoral boundaries

In 1964, independent electoral district boundaries commissions began setting the federal electoral district boundaries for each province. The boundaries are redrawn after each decennial (10-year) census to ensure that representation in Parliament reflects population shifts in accordance with the Constitution Act, 1867, and the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. The most recent readjustment of electoral boundaries began in 2012, taking effect for the 2015 general election. The total number of seats in the House of Commons increased from 308 to 338, with 15 additional seats attributed to Ontario, 6 more each for British Columbia and Alberta, and 3 more for Quebec.

Enforcing the rules

The position of Election Expenses Commissioner was established in 1974 under the Election Expenses Act. The title was changed to Commissioner of Canada Elections in 1977, when the Commissioner's powers were expanded to ensure that all the provisions of the Canada Elections Act were observed and applied. In 2014, the position of Commissioner of Canada Elections moved to within the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Effective April 1, 2019, the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections returned within the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer. However, the Commissioner operates independently of Elections Canada.

A History of the Vote in Canada

For a thorough study of the evolution of the federal electoral process, see A History of the Vote in Canada (Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada for the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, 1997).

An abundantly illustrated Web module featuring highlights from the book was produced in co-operation with the Canadian Museum of History.

August 2019