Electoral systems, or voting systems, are methods of choosing political representatives. Provincial election systems, governed by provincial election acts, are similar to the federal system, but differ slightly from each other in important details. Federal election practices are therefore not an accurate guide to provincial elections. The Canadian federal election system is governed by the Canada Elections Act, as amended from time to time.

Voting in Canada

Until 1918, only men over 21 were allowed to vote in Canada, and even then only those who met a property qualification were able to do so. Now, subject to only a very few special constraints, any Canadian citizen at least 18 years old may vote. (See also Human Rights; Right to Vote; Women’s Suffrage.)

Generally, a person's name must appear on an official list of voters in order to vote. Starting with the 1997 federal election, elections are conducted from a permanent electoral register that is maintained and updated on a regular basis.

In the past, enumerators went from door to door compiling a list of people entitled to vote. The elimination of the need for door-to-door enumeration reduced the length of a federal election campaign to about 36 days — it also saved $60 million between the 1997 and 2004 elections. Election campaigns once took about 60 days, when party leaders often travelled by train and the list of electors took considerable time to compile. In 1996, the law required that a campaign be at least 47 days long, and from 1982 to 1993, elections had to be at least 50 days long.

How do Elections in Canada Work?

Calling an Election in Canada

The Constitution Act, 1982 requires that no more than five years pass between elections. Elections writs (i.e., formal written orders to begin an election) are issued by the governor general, normally at the request of the prime minister. In 2007, Parliament passed a law establishing fixed election dates. Elections are to be held on the third Monday in October in the fourth year following the last federal election. However, the governor general retains the power to dissolve Parliament. Since this power is exercised in consultation with the prime minister, this means that it is not difficult for a prime minister to override the fixed election law, as was done in 2008. If a prime minister and her or his government loses the confidence of the House of Commons (as happened in 2011), the prime minister may request that the House of Commons be dissolved and an election be called. That process is colloquially known as “dropping the writ.” It is completed each time an election is called. Under exceptional circumstances, the Crown can reject the prime minister’s advice (see King-Byng Affair).

Election Day in Canada

Canadian voters head to the polls on the same day across the country. Hours of voting are meant to be extensive enough to give all who want to a reasonable opportunity to vote. In fact, employers are required by law to ensure that their employees have three consecutive hours to vote on election day. Voting hours at polling stations across the country are open for 12 hours on election day. However, the six different time zones in Canada have caused dissatisfaction in the western provinces. Because more than two-thirds of the seats are in eastern Canada, media coverage often declares the election over before the polls have closed in British Columbia (see Time Zones and Legal Time). Starting with the 1997 election, voting hours were staggered across the country so that the polls close at about the same time everywhere — there is only a three hour gap between the closing of the polls in Newfoundland and Labrador and the closing of the polls in British Columbia. Until 2014, it was illegal to transmit election results until the polls had closed everywhere in Canada. However, advances in communication technology rendered this provision almost impossible to enforce, and it was repealed in 2014.

In the past, voting was largely restricted to polling stations on election day. Although there were advance polls, the expectation was that these were for people who would be unable to go to the polling station on election day. Now, there are a variety of ways for people to vote and these are available to anyone who wishes to use them. Besides voting on election day, there are four days of advance voting, starting 10 days before the election. In addition, voters can cast a ballot at their local Elections Canada office, or satellite office, for most of the campaign period. Finally, voters can request a special ballot and vote by mail.

To prevent voters being influenced on the main polling day, advance and special ballots are not counted until the polls have closed on election day. Candidates or their representatives may be present in the polling stations to witness the votes being cast and to ensure the honesty of the count.

Candidates

With some exceptions, and after complying with certain legal requirements, any voter may also be a candidate. Because most candidates are judged by his or her party affiliation rather than by personal qualifications, the only candidates with any real chance of being elected are those with a party label. Since the 1972 election, the candidate's party has appeared following his or her name on the ballot paper. This may have made it even more difficult for an independent candidate to win more than a few hundred votes except in the most unusual circumstances.

The procedures by which parties nominate their candidates are determined by the parties themselves, but the financial arrangements of the process are regulated: nomination contestants are subject to financial disclosure laws and must limit their spending on the contest to no more than 20 per cent of the spending limit for that constituency in a federal election (see Party Financing).

Constituencies in Canada

Canada is divided into 338 single-member constituencies, or “ridings” — increased from 308 in 2011 (see Redistribution). Voters may vote only in the constituency in which they have been enumerated and for one of the candidates running in that constituency. The constituencies are divided into a number of polling divisions, each with about 250 to 450 electors. Voters must cast their ballots in the polling division where their names are registered.

Voting System in Canada: Plurality and First Past the Post

Some parts of the world have very complicated voting systems, but Canada's, known as the plurality system, is very simple. In any constituency, the voter casts a single vote and the candidate with the greatest number of votes is elected. The process is often known as “first-past-the-post,” and it can produce some strange results. While the winning candidate in a constituency in which only two candidates run must have a majority of the votes cast, a candidate among three or more in another constituency may be elected with far less than the 50 per cent of the vote that would constitute a true majority.

Electoral Reform in Canada

The move to implement some form of electoral reform is politically divisive. Since reform stands to affect the number of seats each party wins in an election, the move to one system or another can arguably benefit one or more parties above others.

From time to time, proposals have surfaced for reforms to Canada’s electoral system. Usually, these involve some variant of proportional representation, although some have argued for a preferential ballot to ensure that candidates elected have the support of a majority of voters. At the federal level, these have always been rejected. Provinces have been more adventurous in electoral reform, both in the past (Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia all used systems other than plurality voting at certain points) and in recent consideration of alternatives to the plurality system.

More often than not government is elected with a majority of seats and considerably less than a majority of votes. Since the Second World War, only two majority governments have received a majority of the vote — the Conservatives in 1958 and 1984. A further consequence of this political arithmetic is a regional concentration of political party representation. A party may appear strong in one region and weak in another, because the disparity in the number of seats may be far greater than the actual distribution of the popular vote.

During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberal, NDP and Green Party each included electoral reform in its platform. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was the most vocal, announcing that the party was “committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first past the post.” The Conservative Party supported a referendum on the matter.

After the Liberals won a majority, they established the all-party Special Committee on Electoral Reform on 7 June 2016. The committee’s report, tabled that December, recommended that the government consider a national referendum on the question of electoral reform. Although the report suggested that any new system adopted should be one of proportional representation, it did not recommend a specific alternative.

The government commissioned an online survey called MyDemocracy.ca, which was circulated in December 2016. Though its aim was to consult and engage Canadians on the subject of electoral reform, its results were inconclusive. Critics pointed out that the survey did not clearly discuss electoral reform or specific electoral systems and instead focused attention on democratic values.

On 1 February 2017, the Liberal government dropped electoral reform from its official mandate.

Legal experts point out that federal electoral reform may require constitutional amendment, a historically difficult process (see Constitutional History).

(See also Electoral Reform.)

Voter Turnout in Canada

In recent federal elections, about 60 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. This represents a significant decline from the 75 per cent of voters who typically cast a ballot between 1945 and 1988. Similar trends can be seen at the provincial level — as well as in other industrialized countries. The causes of turnout decline are complex, but one of the most important explanations is a decline in voting among younger generations in Canada. Compared with their older counterparts — and compared with younger generations in years gone by — younger Canadians are less interested in and less knowledgeable about politics, less engaged with formal political institutions and less likely to see voting as a duty, rather than as a personal choice.

Election Administration in Canada

The actual operation of a federal election is under the overall authority of a chief electoral officer. Authority in each constituency is vested in a returning officer, appointed for 10-year terms by the chief electoral officer. New returning officers must be appointed following any redistribution or significant readjustment of existing electoral district boundaries.

Deciding Who Governs

The results of an election determine not only who the representatives will be, but which party will form the government. If a party wins a majority of the seats in the House of Commons (at least 170 seats out of 338), it is said to have "won the election." The leader of the winning party will then be appointed prime minister, and will in turn appoint members to Cabinet, which is the effective Government of Canada.

In cases where no party wins a majority of the seats, the outcome of the election is less clear. Most common in Canada is a minority government, where a party — usually the one with the most seats — governs without commanding a majority. Such arrangements typically require the tacit support of another party or parties. For example, from 1972 to 1974, the Liberal Party formed a minority government with the support of the New Democratic Party. A minority government is different from a coalition government, where members of more than one party take Cabinet posts. Coalition governments are common in many parliamentary democracies, but very rare in Canada.

Electoral Fraud in Canada

Electoral fraud, from ballot box stuffing, impersonation of voters, bribery and intimidation to gerrymandering (the deliberate manipulation of constituency boundaries to give advantage to one party), was once an acknowledged and largely tolerated aspect of Canadian elections. It has now been virtually eliminated and does not significantly impact the outcomes of elections. There is little tolerance in Canadian political culture for interference with the electoral process. The Commissioner of Canada Elections investigates and pursues violations of the Canada Elections Act. In 2014, this position was moved from Elections Canada to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. Most of these cases involve violation of political party finance laws, such as spending in excess of the spending limit, or making an illegal campaign contribution. Most of these are dealt with through “compliance agreements,” which are voluntary agreements between the Commissioner and the person violating the rules. In some cases, the Commissioner lays charges, which may result in jail time for offenders if they are found guilty. For example, in 2014, Conservative Party staff member Michael Sona was found guilty for his role in a scandal that saw some voters in Guelph, Ontario, provided with misleading information about the location of their polling stations. Such incidents, however serious, are relatively rare, and punished aggressively by the Commissioner of Canada Elections.

Significance

Elections are fundamental political events in Canada and, as such, are governed by an elaborate series of laws and a well-developed administrative apparatus that covers everything from the fundamentals of how votes are translated into seats to voter eligibility to the establishment and operation of polling stations.