Electoral Process

A dissolution of Parliament terminates all business in the Senate and in the House of Commons and is followed by a general election. The date of a general election is set in accordance with the provisions of the Canada Elections Act, which stipulates that each general election must be held on the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year following polling day for the last general election, unless the Governor General sees fit to hold the general election on another date.125

The election process has evolved considerably since 1867. The Constitution Act, 1867, stated that electoral laws in force at the time in the provinces would apply to the election of Members until such time as Parliament enacted its own legislation.126 Thus, in 1867 and in 1872, polling days were held on different days in different locations over several weeks.127 In 1867, elections were held on different dates in different ridings over a period of six weeks. The 1872 election lasted three months.128 Moreover, with the exception of elections in New Brunswick where the secret ballot had been adopted in 1855, voting was done orally.129 In 1874, Parliament passed electoral legislation which stipulated that votes had to be cast on the same day in all electoral districts and by secret ballot.130 A number of administrative and process amendments were made to the legislation over the following decades, and in 1920 a new statute was enacted. Among other matters, the Dominion Elections Act created the office of the Chief Electoral Officer to oversee the election process.131 In 1929, the Act was amended to establish Monday as polling day, unless that day was a statutory holiday, in which case the election would be held the next day.132 Statutory provisions to specify the length of an election were introduced only in 1982, when the electoral period was set at a minimum of 50 days;133 in 1993, the election period was shortened to a minimum of 47 days.134 In 1996, amendments to the Canada Elections Act introduced a permanent register of electors, reduced the minimum time required between the issue of the election writs and polling day to 36 days and staggered the hours of voting across Canada’s six time zones with polling stations open 12 hours in each region.135 In 2000, the Canada Elections Act was repealed and replaced with an identically titled new statute which modernized the organization and terminology of electoral legislation.136 In addition, the new statute repealed the Dominion Controverted Elections Act, which dealt with disputed election results; new provisions for resolving such matters were added to the Canada Elections Act. The Corrupt Practices Inquiries Act (1876) and the Disfranchising Act (1894) were also repealed.137 In 2007, the Canada Elections Act was amended to provide for fixed elections every four years.138 Finally, in 2014, Parliament passed a bill to bring a range of changes to the Canada Elections Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.139 The amendments concerned, among other matters, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, election preparation, voting procedures, communications with electors, election campaign financing, the enforcement of the Act, prohibitions and the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.140

Issue of the Writs of Election for a General Election

The Prime Minister begins the process of calling a general election by presenting the Governor General with an Instrument of Advice recommending that Parliament be dissolved. Once the proclamation dissolving Parliament has been issued, the Prime Minister presents an Order in Council to the Governor General recommending that writs of election be issued. The Governor in Council then issues a proclamation ordering the issue of writs of election and fixing the date of the election as well as the date for the return of the writs.141 The issue of the proclamation marks the start of a general election.

When a general election is called, the Chief Electoral Officer issues each returning officer a writ of election.142 A writ is a formal written order instructing the returning officer in each electoral district to hold an election for a Member of Parliament. The writ specifies such details as the polling date and the date on which the writ, with the name of the successful candidate noted on the back, is to be returned to the Chief Electoral Officer.143 The date of the issue of the writ, the polling day and the date for the return of the writ are the same for each electoral district144 (see Figure 4.2, “The Writ of General Election”).

The returning officer is responsible for the conduct of an election within an electoral district.145 One returning officer is appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer for each electoral district following a competitive process.146 The Chief Electoral Officer establishes the qualifications for returning officers as well as the appointment process and reports these to the Speaker, who tables the report in the House.147 The returning officer is appointed for a term of 10 years.148

Figure 4.2 The Writ of General Election
Image of the text of a writ of general election.

The writs of election cannot be issued or dated later than the 36th day before polling day, making the minimum length of a federal election campaign 36 days.149 Within four days after the writ is issued (see Figure 4.2, “The Writ of General Election”), the returning officer prepares a notice of election that indicates the deadline date and time for the receipt of nominations, the date for polling day, the expected date and time for the validation of the results, and the address of the returning officer’s office150 (see Figure 4.3, “Notice of Election”).

Figure 4.3 Notice of Election
Image of the text of a notice of election prepared by a returning officer.

No later than 2:00 p.m. on the closing day for nominations, which is Monday, the 21st day before polling day,151 each candidate must file with the returning officer a nomination paper that consists of several documents, including declarations signed by the candidate stating that he or she is seeking election and accepts the nomination; a declaration of acceptance signed by the candidate’s official agent; a list of at least 100 names, addresses and signatures of electors resident in the electoral district who endorse the candidate; a party’s endorsement, if any; and a statement of acceptance signed by the candidate’s auditor. A $1,000 deposit is also required to ensure the candidate’s intention to stand as an official candidate.152 Candidates who change their mind have until 5:00 p.m. on the closing day for nominations to withdraw or make changes to their name, address or occupation as set out in the nomination paper.153

Where, as of 2:00 p.m. on the 19th day before polling day, only one candidate has been officially confirmed for an electoral district, the returning officer immediately returns the writ of election to the Chief Electoral Officer stating that the candidate is duly elected for that electoral district.154

Issue of Writ for a By-election

Whenever a vacancy in the representation of the House occurs during a Parliament for whatever reason, the Speaker addresses a warrant to the Chief Electoral Officer for the issue of a writ of election to fill the vacancy.155 The writ for a by-election must be issued between the 11th day and the 180th day after the receipt of the warrant for the issue of the writ by the Chief Electoral Officer.156 While the Parliament of Canada Act requires by-elections to be called within six months of a seat becoming vacant, there is no limit on how far in the future the actual date of the by-election may be set. The date of the by-election is fixed by the Governor in Council and must be at least 36 days after the issue of the writ.157 More than one by-election may be held on the same day.

A writ for a by-election is deemed to have been superseded and withdrawn if Parliament is dissolved prior to the date set for the by-election.158

Return of the Writ

After the close of the polls on election day, the ballots in each polling station are counted by deputy returning officers in the presence of the poll clerks and any candidates or their representatives. If no candidates or representatives are present, at least two electors must be present.159 The results are written on the statements of the vote, which are sent to the returning officer for validation.160 In the notice of election that each returning officer issues, the time and date for the validation of the election results are indicated; that date must not be later than seven days following the polling date.161 Normally, immediately after the sixth day following the completion of the validation of the results, the returning officer is required to complete the form on the back of the writ, declaring a candidate elected.162 The returning officer returns the writ of election along with a post-election report and all other election documents to the Chief Electoral Officer.163

A judicial recount of the ballots is requested automatically by the returning officer whenever the winning candidate is separated from any other candidate by less than one one-thousandth (1/1000) of the total votes cast.164 A judicial recount may also take place if, within four days of the validation of the results, an elector applies to a judge for a recount, claiming that there were irregularities in the addition of the ballots; the application must include an affidavit of a credible witness.165 The judicial recount is conducted by a judge and must take place no later than four days after the application has been received.166 The judge conducts the recount by adding the number of votes reported in the statements of the vote prepared by the deputy returning officers on the night of the election.167

As soon as the recount is completed, the judge prepares a certificate setting out the number of votes cast for each candidate and delivers it to the returning officer.168 The results of the recount are final. The returning officer completes the return of the writ for the candidate who received the majority of the votes and sends the writ to the Chief Electoral Officer.169

If the recount results in two candidates receiving the same number of votes, the Chief Electoral Officer informs the Speaker that no candidate has been declared elected because of the equality of the votes, and a new election must be held in the district in question.170

The Chief Electoral Officer publishes the name of each candidate declared elected in the Canada Gazette.171 In addition, the Chief Electoral Officer is required to publish a report of the official voting results of each polling division without delay following a general election and within 90 days of the return of the writ for a by-election.172 The Chief Electoral Officer also provides the Speaker of the House of Commons with a report on the conduct of a general election within 90 days of the date set for the return of the writs and within 90 days of the end of the calendar year for any by-election held that year.173

The Chief Electoral Officer provides the Clerk of the House with a certified list of Members returned to serve in the House of Commons. The list is tabled in the House by the Clerk at the beginning of the first session of the new Parliament and is included in the Journals.174

The official agents of all candidates must provide the Chief Electoral Officer with an electoral campaign return within four months of polling day.175 If an elected candidate fails to submit the return or does not make the corrections or revisions requested by the Chief Electoral Officer within the prescribed time, or within any extension authorized, he or she will not be permitted to sit or vote in the House until the report is filed or the corrections are made.176

Contested Elections

An election may be contested (i.e., challenged) if there are allegations that irregularities, fraud, or corrupt or illegal practices affected the outcome of the election in a particular riding or if there are grounds to believe the elected candidate did not meet the criteria to be eligible to seek election.177

Prior to Confederation, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada followed the example of the British Parliament in dealing with electoral matters in their own legislatures. After Confederation, between 1867 and 1873, the Speaker of the House of Commons regularly appointed six Members to serve on the General Committee of Elections to adjudicate contested elections.178 This Committee routinely passed judgment on cases of bribery and corruption in electoral contests, and its decisions were usually perceived to be based on partisan grounds rather than any findings of corrupt practices. Indeed, only one election was ever voided.179 In 1873, the House transferred to the provincial courts exclusive jurisdiction over matters relating to the election of its Members.180 A candidate or any qualified elector who wished to contest the result of an election filed an election petition with the provincial or territorial court designated in the Dominion Controverted Elections Act to hear such cases. Trials were conducted without jury by two superior court justices for the province in which the disputed election took place. The judges would award the election to a candidate other than the one who was declared elected by the returning officer, or declare the election null and void, or dismiss the petition (i.e., confirm the original result). With the introduction of the secret ballot, simultaneous elections across the country, and the enactment of new election laws, the number of contested elections gradually dropped.181 Since 1949, only five elections have been declared void, all on the grounds that a number of ballots were unlawfully cast.182 In 2000, the Dominion Controverted Elections Act was repealed and modern provisions for dealing with contested elections were included in the Canada Elections Act.183

Even today, any elector who was eligible to vote in the electoral district or any candidate in that district may submit an application to contest the election before a judge in a designated provincial or territorial court, or the Federal Court.184 If the basis for the application is that irregularities, fraud, or corrupt or illegal practices occurred in the election, the application must be filed no later than 30 days after the later of the date the contested election result is published in the Canada Gazette or the date the applicant first knew or should have known that an irregularity, fraud, or corrupt or illegal practice had occurred.185 The judge will hear the application and either dismiss it if there is no evidence to support the allegation, or declare the election null and void if the allegation is substantiated.186

The court sends a copy of the decision to the Speaker; the Speaker will also be informed if an appeal has been filed. If no appeal is filed, the Speaker communicates the decision to the House.187 An appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada must be filed within eight days of the decision being rendered. The Court must rule without delay and transmit its decision to the Speaker, who communicates it to the House.188 If the election is declared null and void, the Speaker addresses a warrant to the Chief Electoral Officer for the issue of a writ for an election.189