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Postponing an election

Questions and Answers

Can an election be postponed?

Section 59 of the Canada Elections Act allows for an election to be postponed.

If the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) certifies that it has become impracticable for Elections Canada to administer the provisions of the Actin one or more electoral districts because of "flood, fire or other disaster," the Governor in Council (the Governor General, acting on the advice of Cabinet) may postpone the election by a few days in the affected electoral districts, or withdraw the writ in those districts. When a writ is withdrawn in an electoral district, a new election in that district must be ordered within three months. 

The CEO would certify that it has become impracticable to administer an election in one or more electoral districts only after having used up all possible adaptations under the Act. This has never happened before.

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Could an election be postponed because of a pandemic such as the COVID-19 pandemic?

Section 59 of the Canada Elections Act refers to "flood, fire or other disaster"which includes public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic—as reasons to postpone an election. The effects of the pandemic could, in certain circumstances, make it impracticable to administer an election.

Section 59 has not been invoked since it was introduced into the Act in 1952.

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What factors would the CEO consider when determining if Elections Canada can deliver an election?

Each situation is unique and would need to be properly assessed based on the circumstances at the time. However, two things are essential to deliver an election: election workers and polling places. If these are not available in an electoral district on election day, the returning officer's ability to deliver an election would likely be seriously affected.

Certain provisions in the Canada Elections Act allow the CEO to use discretion and adapt procedures in response to changing circumstances. Elections Canada makes such adaptations in almost every election.

For example, the number of polling places within electoral districts can be changed. Staffing of polling stations is another important area where operations can be adapted. Election officers may be assigned to new or different tasks, depending on need.

In "an emergency, an unusual or unforeseen circumstance," section 17 of the Act authorizes the CEO to adapt the Act for the sole purpose of enabling "electors to exercise their right to vote" or "the counting of ballots." For example, in the 2019 election, an adaptation of the Act allowed Elections Canada to set up a "super poll" in Winnipeg after several communities were evacuated because of severe weather and power outages.

Only after all options have been used up would the CEO reach the conclusion that it would be impracticable to deliver an election.

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Can an election be postponed in individual electoral districts?

Yes. Section 59 can be used for one or more electoral districts.

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Can a general election be postponed in all 338 electoral districts across the country?

Section 59 can be used for one or more electoral districts. However, because the CEO would need to reach the conclusion for each electoral district that it would be impracticable to deliver an election in that specific district, it is unlikely that an election would be postponed in all 338 districts. 

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What is the process that would lead the CEO to certify that an election has become impracticable?

Elections Canada would carefully analyze the situation using a pre-established procedure. Only after the CEO has considered and ruled out all contingency plans and possible adaptations  would he make the last-resort decision to certify that an election is impracticable.

Timing would be a significant factor. Elections Canada would need to make sure that we have the time to put contingency plans in place, if there are serious and unanticipated events that jeopardize the delivery of an election.

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Who does the CEO have to consult before certifying that an election has become impracticable?

There is nothing in the Canada Elections Act about the analysis the CEO must perform before certifying that an election has become impracticable. As an independent officer of Parliament, the CEO is still expected to consider all relevant facts and factors in coming to an appropriate conclusion and making a decision. He would need to make such a decision in light of the rights of those electors and candidates being affected by it and in line with the values of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Before deciding whether to certify that an election has become impracticable, the CEO would consult Elections Canada representatives in the affected electoral district(s). He would also consider the operational and legal advice he receives, as well as any other specialized advice warranted by the situation (e.g., public health). The CEO would not consult with political parties or candidates before determining whether it has become impracticable to deliver an election, although he would inform them about the decision-making process and the assessment of the evolving situation. In the end, however, the decision to certify that it is impracticable to administer an election will always rest with the CEO.

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If an election were to be postponed, how would it work?

Once the CEO determines that it is impracticable to administer an election:

  • The CEO completes a certificate that attests to the impracticability of carrying out the election by reason of a flood, fire or other disaster and names the electoral district(s) affected by this certification.
  • The certificate is then delivered to the minister responsible for the Canada Elections Act. Currently, this minister is the Honourable Dominic LeBlanc, President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada.
  • Section 59 of the Canada Elections Act provides that the Governor in Council has the option to a) decline to postpone the election, b) postpone the election for up to seven days, or c) postpone the election until a new writ is issued for the affected electoral district(s), which should be no later than three months from the date the election is postponed.
  • The Governor in Council may order the postponement of the election or withdrawal of the writ for any electoral district for which the CEO has certified that it is impracticable to carry out the election. 
  • Once the Governor in Council issues the order, the election is postponed in that electoral district. The general election continues in the rest of the country.
  • If the Governor in Council orders the withdrawal of the writ under section 59 of the Act, the CEO must then issue a new writ for each of the affected electoral districts. The Governor in Council determines when the writ will be issued and the date of the new election day.
  • The new writ must be issued within three months of the publication in the Canada Gazette of the notice of withdrawal of the writ, and election day must not fall more than 50 days after the issue of the writ.
  • As with any new election, the election in the affected electoral district(s) lasts a minimum of 37 days, and candidates are subject to new spending limits.

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