Until 1917, in Canada, only men were allowed to vote, and even then only those who met a property qualification (see HUMAN RIGHTS and FRANCHISE). Now, subject to only a very few special constraints, any Canadian citizen at least 18 years old may vote. Generally the voter's name must appear on an official list of voters. In the past enumerators went about from door to door compiling a list of people entitled to vote. As provided by legislation given Royal Assent in December of 1996, however, federal elections are now conducted from a permanent electoral register which is to be maintained and updated on a regular basis. The elimination of the need for door-to-door enumeration is expected to reduce the length of a federal election campaign to about 36 days from the 60 days it used to take. It is estimated as well that the new arrangements will result in a saving of some $30 million at each election. With a maximum interval of 5 years, a federal election may be called at any time, largely at the discretion of the PRIME MINISTER.
With some exceptions, and after complying with certain legal requirements, any voter may also be a candidate. Because most candidates are judged by their party affiliation rather than by their personal qualifications, the only candidates with any real chance of being elected are those with a party label. Since 1972 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. However, the procedures by which the parties nominate their candidates are determined by the parties themselves, and are not subject to election laws (see ELECTION EXPENSES ACT).
Canada is divided into 301 single-member constituencies - increased from 282 in 1979 to 295 in 1988 (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 electors. Voters must cast their ballots in the polling division where their names are registered.
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. This can produce some strange results; while the winning candidate in a constituency contested by only 2 candidates must have a majority of the votes cast, a candidate among 3 or more in another constituency may be elected with far less than a complete majority.
From time to time proposals have surfaced for reforms which might introduce some variant of proportional representation, but these have always been rejected. However, in recent years there have been several suggestions for reform of the SENATE which would have it elected, and it is possible that proportional representation would be used here to avoid producing a simple mirror of the HOUSE OF COMMONS.
More often than not a Canadian government will be elected with a majority of seats and considerably less than a majority of votes. 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.
Over recent decades about 75% of eligible voters have chosen to exercise their franchise. There are many alternative voting systems, but none is perfect. Any of the defects of the present Canadian system could be corrected, but not without creating new and perhaps even more serious problems.
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 permanent returning officer, appointed by the Governor-in-Council. Returning officers may be removed only on attaining the age of 65, or for cause, as defined in the Act, although they may resign at any time. New returning officers must be appointed following any redistribution or significant readjustment of existing boundaries.
Many changes in the rules and practices which govern the conduct of Canadian federal elections were recommended by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing which reported early in 1992. Many of these, such as an outright ban on the publication of the results of public opinion polls during the last three days of a campaign, were put in place just before the 1993 election. Others are receiving further study.
While everyone votes in a federal election on the same day across the country, with hours of voting extensive enough to give all who want to a reasonable opportunity to vote (employers are required, for example, to ensure that their employees have sufficient time to vote), the five different time zones have caused dissatisfaction in the western provinces. Because more than two-thirds of the seats are in eastern Canada, media coverage has often declared the election over before the polls have closed in British Columbia. A proposal to stagger the hours of poll opening and closing to remove this difficulty was before the House of Commons in the fall of 1996.
Voters who have reason to suppose they will not be able to vote on the day of the general election may vote in special advance polls a few days before. In 1993, for the first time, qualified voters who were out of the country - either permanently or temporarily - were enabled to vote by special ballot in their home constituency.
To prevent voters being influenced on the main polling day, the ballots from the advance polls or overseas locations 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. 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, either alone or in alliance with another party, 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 some fellow party members to the CABINET, which is the effective Government of Canada.
Electoral fraud, from ballot box stuffing, impersonation of voters, bribery and intimidation to gerrymandering, was once an acknowledged and largely tolerated aspect of Canadian elections. It has now been virtually eliminated and is nowhere a significant factor. Improved antifraud procedures, the greatly increased populations of electoral districts and a changed climate of public opinion have all made former practices obsolete.
Author TERENCE H. QUALTER Revised: JOHN M. WILSON
Links to Other Sites
The official web site of Elections Canada. Just about everything you need to know about elections in Canada.
Electoral Atlas of the Dominion of Canada (1895)
This website features an interactive map of the federal electoral boundaries in Canada as they existed in 1895. From Library and Archives Canada.
The Hill Times
The website for the Canadian newsweekly "The Hill Times." Features news and opinion about Canadian federal politics.
The Canadian State: Documents & Dialogue
The Canadian State Web exhibition enables students to explore the various aspects of Canadian governance and to use a set of unique "real life" activities to create their own political party. The activities cover a wide variety of Social Science disciplines: History, Civics, Law, Language Arts, World Issues, Communications, and Canada in a North American Perspective. From Library and Archives Canada.
A bilingual glossary of terms used in reference to elections in Canada. From the "Translation Bureau," a Government of Canada website.
Oliver Mowatt Biggar
A brief biogaraphy of Oliver Mowatt Biggar, who was appointed Canada's Chief Electoral Officer in 1920. From the elections.ca website.