Canada’s Electoral System: Introduction to Federal and Provincial Elections

Feature by Brian Doody || Dec 3, 2007

While the origins of some elements of Canada’s electoral system can be traced back to medieval England, others have been added more recently and reflect changes in the way that election campaigns have evolved, as well as an ongoing concern that elections be kept free and fair. This article gives an overview of Canada’s federal and provincial electoral systems, including their basic framework and operation, their historical development, as well as key rules governing the conduct of political parties, election candidates, and the media.

Basic Framework of the Canadian Electoral System

Federalism, single-member constituencies, and first-past-the-post voting

History and Development of the Canadian Electoral System

Some elements of Canada’s system can be traced back nearly 800 years

Operation of the Canadian Electoral System

Calling an election, election officers, selection of candidates, and voter lists

Election Regulations for Parties, Candidates, and the Media

Legal rules governing the conduct of key election actors

Sources and Links to More Information

Lists of article sources and links to more on this topic

This article was written by Brian Doody. It has since been altered by Jay Makarenko.


Basic Framework of the Canadian Electoral System

Federalism, single-member constituencies, and first-past-the-post voting

What is an Electoral System?

An electoral system is the process by which voters’ preferences are translated into seats in a legislature. Voters express their preference (that is, their vote) by casting a ballot; ballots are then counted to determine which representatives are elected to the respective legislative body. In this way, voters in a society choose the representatives who have the power to make that society’s laws and to govern it on the voters’ behalf.

Electoral systems differ widely between political jurisdictions. Canada’s electoral system is characterized by several qualities: federalism, single-member constituencies, and a first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

Federalism and the Electoral System

Canada is a federation, meaning that power and authority is divided between two levels of government: the federal (or national) level and the provincial (or regional) level. Moreover, Canada also has territories, which are regional governments similar to provinces. The key difference, however, is that territories are created by the federal government, whereas the provinces are constitutionally autonomous entities.

Each of these different levels of government has its own elected legislature. At the federal level, the House of Commons is the elected federal legislature, while the Senate is an appointed body. Each province and territory also has its own elected legislature. The purpose of Canada’s electoral system is to elect representatives to these different legislative bodies. This is done through the holding of regular (and separate) elections, at both the federal and provincial/territorial levels.

Single-Member Constituencies

Under Canada’s electoral system, the country is divided into geographically based electoral districts or ridings (also called constituencies). At the federal level, the entire country is divided into electoral districts for elections to the House of Commons. Individual provinces and territories are also divided into different electoral districts for election to their respective legislatures.

Voters in each district elect a single representative, who is authorized to represent them in their legislature. This is why Canada’s electoral system is referred to a “single-member constituency” system, as only one representative (or member of the legislature) is elected for each electoral district (or constituency). This can be contrasted with other electoral systems, where voters have an opportunity to elect multiple representatives for a given electoral district.

During a general election for either the federal House of Commons or a provincial/territorial legislature, elections are held simultaneously in each electoral district. The outcome of those district elections, in turn, determines who will form the government. Here it is important to note the role of political parties. In federal elections, and most provincial/territorial elections, candidates running in a district usually belong to competing political parties. Which party forms the government upon the outcome of an election depends on how well these political parties fare across all of the electoral districts. Generally in Canada, the political party that elects the most number of representatives forms the government. Typically, the leading party forms either a majority or minority government.

In the 2000 federal election, for example, the country consisted of 301 electoral districts. Of those districts, the Liberal Party won 172, the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance won 66, the Bloc Québécois won 38, the New Democratic Party won 13, and the Progressive Conservative Party took 12. By winning the most electoral districts, and electing the most representatives, the Liberal Party was able to form the government after the election.

For more information on how governments are formed in Canada:

First-Past-the-Post System

In addition to being organized into single-member constituencies, Canada’s electoral system is also characterized by a first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP). Under this system, the candidate with the most votes in a particular electoral district wins the election.

Take, for example, the riding of Kitchener-Conestoga in the 2007 Ontario provincial election. In that riding’s election, 33,547 ballots were cast. Of that number, the Progressive Conservative candidate won 14,382 votes, the Liberal candidate won 13,350 votes, and the New Democratic candidate 3,937 votes. Under the first-past-the-post voting system, the Progressive Conservative candidate became the district’s representative, by virtue of winning the most votes relative to the other candidates.

It is important to note that winning an electoral district does not necessarily mean that a representative is widely supported. In the above example of Kitchener-Conestoga, the winning Progressive Conservative candidate only won 14,382 votes out of a possible 33,547. This represented only 42 percent of the vote, meaning that 6 out of 10 voters cast a ballot for someone other than the winning candidate.

Reforming Canada’s Electoral System

Several provinces and the federal government have recently studied changes to Canada’s electoral system (although, as of October 2007, no official chances have been made):

  • In 2004, the federally-appointed Law Commission of Canada recommended the adoption of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) for federal elections. MMP combines FPTP elections in single-member districts with proportional representation (PR) for political parties, whose members are elected from lists.
  • In British Columbia, a Citizens’ Assembly – selected randomly from the voters’ list – recommended the adoption of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV allows preferential voting in multi-member districts, with voters assigning a number to each candidate in the order of their choice. In a referendum held in May 2005, STV was chosen by 57.7 percent of voters, 2.3 percent short of the 60 percent threshold required for it to become law.
  • In Prince Edward Island, MMP received only 36 percent of votes in a referendum held in November 2005, despite being recommended by two independent commissions. An independent commission in New Brunswick in 2005 recommended the adoption of MMP, which the provincial premier had promised to submit to voters in a referendum; however, the election of a new government in 2006 seems to have put that referendum on hold indefinitely.
  • In Quebec, despite early optimism in 2004 surrounding the introduction of a draft electoral law, MMP seemed to suffer a major setback when a legislative committee in 2006 held that there was no consensus to proceed with MMP. A Citizens’ Committee, consisting of eight voters selected randomly who sat with the legislative committee, contradicted this view; the Committee’s report found a broad consensus in favour of MMP.
  • In Ontario, a Citizens’ Assembly based on the British Columbia model recommended the adoption of MMP, but this proposal, too, won the support of only 36 percent of voters in a referendum held in October 2007, far short of the 60 percent required for its adoption.

History and Development of the Canadian Electoral System

Some elements of Canada’s system can be traced back nearly 800 years

Magna Carta and the Principle of Free Elections

Although the Canadian electoral system is governed by laws passed by the federal Parliament and the legislature of each province, it is based on a practice that began nearly 800 years ago in England. In 1215, the Magna Carta stated that the King no longer had the right to summon his own advisors to sit in what is now called the House of Commons. Instead, he had to issue what today are called writs of election, and to summon to the House only those people who, according to the returned writs, won the most votes in elections held in each district. That principle of free elections first established in the Magna Carta was brought by the British to Canada, where federal and provincial elections today are still organized around the “dropping” and return of separate writs of election for each district.

Evolution of the Right to Vote

The right to vote in elections was historically limited to a minority. In the nineteenth century, the right to vote in Canada was based largely on property qualifications; it was only by the early twentieth century that it was gradually expanded to include most of the adult population. In 1919, women were conferred with the right to vote in all federal elections in Canada. By 1940 the suffrage movement had won the right for women to vote in all provincial elections as well. Exceptions to the right to vote based on racial origin were removed from federal electoral legislation in 1948. In 1960, Aboriginal Canadians were given the right to vote in federal elections and by 1969 could also vote in all provincial and territorial elections.

In 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in section 3, recognized the right of all Canadian citizens “to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.” As a consequence of court challenges to electoral laws under section 3 of the Charter and the actions of legislatures, few restrictions on the right to vote in Canada remain today.

Drawing of Electoral Boundaries

The drawing of electoral boundaries used to be the prerogative of Parliament and the legislatures. Today, that task is largely conferred on boundaries commissions that are independent of Parliament and the legislatures. Commissioners hold public hearings and then draw the boundaries based on the principle that the population between ridings should be relatively similar (the allowable variances between populations in different ridings is established by Parliament and the legislatures).


Operation of the Canadian Electoral System

Calling an election, election officers, and selection of candidates, and voter lists

Calling of an Election and the Writ Period

An election in Canada begins officially when the Prime Minister (or a provincial premier) asks the Governor General (or the Lieutenant Governor, in the case of a province) to dissolve Parliament or the legislature and to authorize the emission of writs of election. This is the beginning of the “writ period” of the election campaign, when the laws that govern the conduct of an election start to be applied by the election officers. This period begins the date that the writ is “dropped” and does not end officially until the writs are returned along with the names of the candidates who won the most votes on “polling day.” The Canada Elections Act states that federal election campaigns must be a minimum of 36 days but does not state a maximum period. The length of a writ period in the provinces ranges from province to province.

Chief Electoral Officers and Returning Officer

All federal and provincial elections in Canada are organized and administered by a non-partisan agency headed by a Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) or similarly-named official whose appointment is usually approved by all of the parties in Parliament or the legislature. One of the CEO’s first tasks during the election period involves sending the writs of election to the Returning Officer responsible for the administration of the election in each riding. Each returning officer must then open an office in his/her electoral district for the duration of the writ period, and hire employees who will carry out various tasks – tasks that can include updating the voters’ list to counting the ballots on polling day.

Each writ of election is addressed to the returning officer and sets out three dates: the deadline for the filing of the candidates’ nomination papers with the returning officer (nomination day), the date of the election (polling day), and the deadline for the return of the writ to the Chief Electoral Officer (which is to be certified on the back by the returning officer with the name of the candidate who won the most votes).

Selection and Nomination of Candidates

Regardless of whether a candidate is selected to represent a political party or chooses to run as an independent candidate, or whether a party’s candidate is selected before or after the writ period begins, all candidates must file their nomination papers at the office of the returning officer no later than the nomination day as set out in the writ. Although political parties frequently select their candidates before the writ is dropped, the expenses incurred during the pre-writ period are generally not counted as election expenses and are usually not included in any reimbursement of campaign expenses.

The information that must be provided with a nomination form varies but generally includes the prospective candidate’s name and contact information, picture identification (Quebec) and – in the case of a candidate representing a registered political party – a letter or other document authorized by the party leader confirming the candidate’s selection by the party (in federal elections and in every province except British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba).

Voter Lists and Enumeration

To ensure a successful election period, a great deal of work also needs to be done during the pre-writ period – and on an ongoing basis between elections – by political parties, candidates, and officials in the Chief Electoral Officer’s office. Elections Canada (the federal election agency) and all provincial election agencies (except in Saskatchewan and Manitoba) maintain or have started to develop permanent voters’ lists. For much of the twentieth century, voters’ lists were compiled by carrying out an enumeration of voters in each district – essentially a door-to-door verification of the eligible voters in each household. Although Elections Canada held its last enumeration in 1997 – and updates its permanent list using tax and other data – many provinces still use a whole or partial enumeration to update their voters’ lists.

Most provinces’ electoral laws now allow the Chief Electoral Officer to hold an enumeration of voters before or after the dropping of the writs. Even when a permanent voters’ list is relied upon without any enumeration, election officials must still check for accuracy to ensure that voters who have changed their residence are accounted for, and for voters who have moved to new residential buildings. During the writ period, for example, election officials must visit hospitals and extended-care facilities to compare voters’ lists against lists of residents provided by a person in charge of each facility.


Election Regulations for Parties, Candidates, and the Media

Legal rules governing the conduct of key election actors

Registration of a Political Party

At both the federal and provincial levels, Chief Electoral Officers maintain registries of political parties. Although parties are not obliged to register with the CEO, registration is the only way a party can qualify for subsidies and reimbursements under the law. Normally each registry contains basic contact information such as the names of senior officials and the party’s head office.

It is the parties’ responsibility to ensure this information is kept up to date, such as when there is a change in the party’s leadership or a merger of two registered parties. A party might be removed or suspended from the registry, for example, if it does not comply with its obligations to file detailed reports on campaign and other financing matters. In some provinces and at the federal level, parties are also required to register their local riding associations.

Parties previously had to run a minimum number of candidates in a general election in order to be eligible to remain in the registry. However, in 2003 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down this provision as unconstitutional under section 3 of the Charter, on the grounds that the right to vote includes “the right of each citizen to play a meaningful role” in an election, in a way that allows “disadvantaged” parties to nominate candidates.

Regulation of Candidate and Party Finance

All federal and provincial elections in Canada today are governed by legislation that regulates, to varying degrees, the contributions and expenditures of candidates and political parties – before, during and after election campaigns. The tools for regulating political donations range from the less coercive – such as reporting requirements for the names of donors, the amounts of contributions, or the amounts and types of expenditures. Other rules restrict the liberty of candidates, parties and their supporters – such as limits on contributions or expenditures, or both. Legislation at the federal level (and provincially in Ontario and Manitoba) requires that both the parties’ nomination candidates in each district and the parties’ leadership contestants register with the Chief Electoral Officer before the candidates can accept donations.

Every candidate for office in a federal or provincial election must have an Official Agent (or similarly-named official), who is the only person authorized to accept contributions and to authorize expenditures on behalf of the candidate during the writ period. The maximum penalties for violating this rule are harsh and include the loss of the right to vote, or to be a candidate in a future election.

Government Subsidies for Election Expenses

Federal and provincial legislation provides for varying degrees of subsidies and refunds of campaign expenses for candidates who receive a minimum percentage of the vote in a campaign, usually around 15 per cent. Some provinces such as Quebec provide a separate subsidy to parties based on their share of the vote. The most generous subsidies to parties are paid at the federal level, where registered parties each year receive $1.75 (in 2004 dollars, indexed to inflation) for each vote given to each of their candidates in the most recent general election.

In order to be eligible for this subsidy, the Canada Elections Act requires a minimum of either two percent of the vote Canada-wide or five percent of the vote in the ridings where the party endorsed candidates, a threshold that some smaller registered parties have recently challenged in court. The smaller parties won their case in the Ontario Superior Court in October 2006, but the application of the judge’s decision was suspended in March 2007 while the case is appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal heard the case in June 2007 (the decision is forthcoming at the time of this article’s publication).

Broadcasting and Other Media Restrictions

Federal and provincial electoral legislation places limits on the rights of broadcasting and print media to publish the results of public-opinion polls in the period immediately prior to polling day and, in the case of federal elections, the election results from time zones where the polls close earlier than the rest of the country. The rise of Internet-based media makes these rules increasingly difficult to enforce, however. Furthermore, the Canada Elections Act and some provincial statutes place spending limits on political advertising by third parties during the writ period. These limits have been upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, most recently in 2004, as a reasonable limit on freedom of expression under the Charter.

Prosecutions for alleged violations under federal and provincial electoral laws are normally carried out by an official who is independent of the government, whose activities are usually managed in close association with the Chief Electoral Officer. Offences under the various election acts normally carry a statute of limitations, meaning they cannot be prosecuted after a certain number of years have passed.


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