Elections Canada: History, Organization, and Key Activities

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Nov 21, 2008

Elections Canada (also known as the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer) is a key agency in the federal government and Canada’s democratic system. Responsible for conducting federal electoral events, Elections Canada plays a significant role in ensuring that Canada’s electoral system operates in an open and impartial manner. The following feature article provides an introduction to Elections Canada’s history, organizational structure, and key activities.

Historical Overview of Elections Canada

Creation of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer

Elections Canada’s Organizational Structure

Independence, leadership, and funding

Key Activities of Elections Canada

Overview of Election Canada’s key responsibilities and activities

Recent Events Involving Elections Canada

Recent high-profile investigations and decisions

Sources and Links to More Information

List of article sources and links for more on this topic

Historical Overview of Elections Canada

Creation of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer

Administration of Elections Prior to 1920

Prior to 1920, the administration of elections in Canada was both highly decentralized and politicized. During Canada’s colonial era, the Executive (governor and cabinet) was in charge of administering elections for colonial legislatures. In this context, the Executive possessed the authority to appoint and remove returning officers, who were often expected to act as agents of the government of the day.

Following Confederation in 1867, power over the administration of elections remained in the hands of the Executive (the prime minister and cabinet). An official, known as the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, was appointed by the Executive to provide limited support to the government. This included receiving lists of electors from provincial authorities, sending writs of election to returning officers, publishing notices of election of members of parliament, and archiving documents pertaining to previous elections. The House of Commons had no say over the appointment election officials and the administration of electoral events.

Creation of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer

In the early 1900s, several factors resulted in calls for reform of the administration of elections and the eventual creation of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer.

During the First World War, the Unionist federal government used its executive power to manipulate the electoral process for its own partisan purposed. This included the passage of the Wartime Elections Act and the Military Voters Act in 1917, which significantly altered the federal franchise in Canada. While the legislation provided the franchise to women for the first time, it only extended the right to female relatives of men serving with the Canadian or British armed forces. Furthermore, the legislation disenfranchised conscientious objectors to the war, as well as British subjects naturalized after 1902 who were either born in an enemy country or who habitually spoke an enemy language.

In addition to this manipulative use of executive power, other forces set the stage for significant reform of the administration of elections (Courtney, 2007). Various political parties during this time began to aggressively advocate reform, with the goal of making the electoral system fairer and more open. Moreover, in 1919, all women were given the right to vote in federal elections, thus doubling the size of the electorate. This, in turn, made the conduct of elections a much larger and more complicated task than before.

Within this framework, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) was established in 1920 by the Dominion Elections Act (now the Canada Elections Act). This new office replaced the Clerk of the Crown Chancery, and was intended to bring greater professionalism and impartiality to the administration of federal elections. Unlike its predecessor, the CEO was responsible to the elected members of the House of Commons, instead of the prime minister and cabinet. (To this day, the CEO was, and continues to be, appointed by the House, not by the prime minister.)

The CEO was granted greater powers than the Clerk of Crown Chancery. The CEO was charged with exercising general direction and supervision over the administration of elections to ensure compliance with the Dominion Elections Act, for overseeing the activities of returning officers, and recommending their removal in cases of incompetence or neglect of duty. Initially, the prime minister and cabinet retained the power to appoint returning officers. Eventually, however, this responsibility was transferred to the CEO.

The Act also granted the new office the power to report to the House of Commons any matters regarding the conduct of an election which the CEO believed should brought to its attention. By adding this discretionary power to identify and report on electoral issues, the Act permitted the CEO to serve as an advocate of electoral reform on behalf of the general public (Courtney, 2007).

Expanding Mandate of the Chief Electoral Officer

Since its creation in 1920, the CEO’s mandate has been expanded. In addition to conducting federal elections and by-elections, as well as reporting election issues to the House of Commons, today’s CEO is responsible for:

  • maintaining the National Register of Electors;
  • ensuring access to the electoral system for all eligible citizens through accessible physical facilities, as well as public education and information programs;
  • registering federal political parties and their electoral district associations, nomination contestants of registered parties, election candidates, party leadership contestants, and third parties engaged in advertising during an election;
  • disclosing, to the public, the contributions to candidates, political parties, and third parties, and to electoral district associations, leadership contestants and nomination contestants of registered parties;
  • examining the financial returns of these individuals and groups to ensure compliance with federal restrictions on contributions and expenses;
  • reimbursing expenses to candidates and parties according to formulas laid down in federal legislation;
  • appointing and assisting the Commissioner of Canada Elections and the Broadcasting Arbitrator;
  • providing legal, technical, financial, and administrative support to independent commissions responsible for the periodic readjustment of federal electoral boundaries; and,
  • engaging in international services in support of democracies in other countries.

It is also important to note that in the early 1980s, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer acquired the name Elections Canada. (Throughout this article, the terms “Office of the Chief Electoral Officer” and “Elections Canada” are used interchangeably.)

Elections Canada’s Organizational Structure

Independence, leadership, and funding

Independence and Non-Partisanship

The purpose of Elections Canada is to act as an independent and non-partisan administrator of federal electoral events. This stems from one of the original objectives in creating the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer: to end the manipulation of elections by the political executive (the prime minister and cabinet).

In this context, the Chief Electoral Officer, who heads Elections Canada, is appointed by the House of Commons as a whole (based on a simple majority vote), allowing all political parties represented in the House to participate in the selection. Once appointed, the CEO may serve until the age of 65 or retirement, and may only be removed earlier by joint request following a majority vote of the House and the Senate.

This appointment and removal process is meant to ensure that the prime minister and cabinet cannot influence the administration of elections, either through a partisan appointment to office or through threats of removal if the CEO does not act in accordance with the government’s wishes.

Elections Canada also has the independent authority to draw on government revenues in order to pay for expenditures relating to its mandate (see below). This is meant to ensure that the government of the day cannot influence the activities of Elections Canada by manipulating its salaries and budget.

Elections Canada employees, including returning officers, are also required to take an oath to uphold voters’ rights and the secrecy of the vote, and to perform their duties without favourtism. The Chief Electoral Officer is also disallowed from voting in federal elections while in office. (The Chief Electoral Officer is the only adult Canadian citizen not permitted to vote.)

Leadership and Staff

The Chief Electoral Officer is responsible for overseeing the long-term planning of Elections Canada and its day-to-day operations. The CEO is assisted by the Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, who also serves as the Chief Legal Counsel and the Registrar of Political Parties, and is responsible for the agency’s international services.

The CEO is supported by four senior internal committees:

  • Executive Committee: The main committee that oversees and directs the conduct of general elections. It is also responsible for providing overall strategic direction for Elections Canada, setting agency policies, and monitoring organizational performance.
  • Regulatory and Compliance Committee (RCC): Develops and maintains the regulatory framework, and monitors and advises on related initiatives, programs and emerging issues.
  • Electoral Readiness Committee (ERC): Provides direction and decides on matters related to electoral readiness and the conduct of electoral events.
  • Information Management and Technology Committee (IMTC): Responsible for ensuring that Elections Canada’s long-term and strategic objectives are supported by an adequate information technology infrastructure.

Additionally, Elections Canada works with the Advisory Committee of Registered Parties. This is an external committee constituted by representatives of federally registered political parties, and chaired by the Chief Electoral Officer. It purpose is to discuss administrative issues related to Elections Canada and the operation of elections, as well as to act a mechanism for input by registered political parties. The Committee was first struck in 1998, and meets approximately four times a year.

Elections Canada usually operates with approximately 330 employees working in Ottawa (Elections Canada, May 2007). These employees plan and prepare for electoral events, assist in the administration of electoral legislation, and produce the agency’s regular reports to Parliament. During general elections and national referendums, the agency hires several hundred additional employees. This temporary staff provides support for returning officers, electoral logistics, communication with electors, and studies relating to the operation of an electoral event. Furthermore, returning officers (who are overseen by Elections Canada) will employ up to 160,000 temporary employees during a general election or referendum (Elections Canada, May 2007).

For more information on Elections Canada staff:

Funding and Budget

Elections Canada is financed in two ways. First, it receives an annual appropriation, which provides for the salaries of permanent employees (excluding the CEO), and which is subject to approval by Parliament as a part of the annual main estimates process.

Second, the Chief Electoral Officer him/herself has the statutory authority to draw on general government revenues without seeking additional parliamentary approval, in order to cover all other expenditures relating to delivery of the agency’s mandate. This authority is unique to the Chief Electoral Officer, as other government departments and agencies must obtain government or parliamentary approval in order to access funds.

Expenditures covered by the Chief Electoral Officer’s statutory spending authority include:

  • the Chief Electoral Officer’s salary;
  • any administration expenses;
  • expenses incurred in acquiring information to update the permanent register of electors;
  • fees, costs, allowances, or expenses for election officers;
  • expenses incurred in preparing and printing election-related materials and for the purposes of procuring election supplies; and,
  • expenses incurred by the Commissioner of Canada Elections while discharging his duties.

(Source: Auditor General of Canada, 2005)

Total annual spending by Elections Canada can vary considerably from year to year, depending on the number of electoral events. In 2001-02, when no general or by-elections took place, Elections Canada’s expenditures totalled $49.5 million. In 2004-05, which included a general election, total spending was $273.6 million.

Elections Canada Spending by Year ($ thousands)

























No. of By-elections






*General election year.
(Source: Auditor General of Canada, 2005)

Key Activities of Elections Canada

Overview of Election Canada’s key responsibilities and activities

Federal Electoral Events

Elections Canada’s central responsibility is preparing for and conducting federal general elections, by-elections, and referenda.

It is important to note that Elections Canada does not actually facilitate electoral events on the ground. Instead, this is the job of federal returning officers (each federal electoral district has its own returning officer, whom is appointed for a 10-year period). Returning officers are tasked with such responsibilities as setting up and staffing polling stations, managing the revision and printing of lists of electors, and tabulating and reporting the results of elections. Elections Canada, however, is responsible for the appointment, training, and oversight of returning officers, and has the power to recommend their removal for misconduct or incompetence.

Elections Canada also maintains the National Register of Electors, a database identifying those Canadians who are qualified to vote in federal electoral events. This database contains each voter’s name, as well as basic personal information (such as mailing address, sex, and date of birth). The National Register is used to produce the preliminary voters list for federal elections, by-elections, and referenda. Some provinces and territories also rely on the National Register to create their own lists for provincial/territorial electoral events.

Regulating Electoral Participants

Elections Canada is also responsible for registering key participants in federal electoral events. This includes political parties, electoral district associations, election candidates, and third parties that wish to advertise during electoral events (third parties refer to any individual or group other than political parties, electoral district associations, or election candidates).

Elections Canada is further responsible for administering legislation pertaining to the activities of key electoral actors. This includes overseeing such things as:

  • the disclosure of financial activities by political parties, electoral district associations, party leadership candidates, party nomination candidates, election candidates, and third parties;
  • restrictions on contributions to political parties, party leadership candidates, and election candidates;
  • limits on spending by political parties and election candidates, as well as third-party advertising during election periods; and,
  • public reimbursements and allowances for political parties and candidates.

For more on the regulation of electoral actors:

Enforcing Electoral Rules

It’s important to note that the Chief Electoral Officer him/herself is not responsible for enforcing electoral rules and investigating allegations of wrongdoing (such as those pertaining to the financial activities of electoral participants). This job, instead, is delegated to the Commissioner of Canada Elections, an independent officer. That said, the Chief Electoral Officer is responsible for appointing the Commissioner, and Elections Canada provides support to the office in its investigations of wrongdoing.

For more on the Commissioner of Canada Elections and the enforcement of electoral rules:

Readjustment of Electoral Boundaries

Another key Elections Canada activity involves overseeing the readjustment of federal electoral boundaries. Actual responsibility for recommending changes to electoral boundaries is delegated to independent commissions (10 such commissions, one for each province, are established every 10 years). These commissions render their decisions independently of both Parliament and the Chief Electoral Officer. Elections Canada, however, is responsible for providing support services to the commissions in each province. Furthermore, the agency, in cooperation with Natural Resources Canada, is required to publish maps showing the new electoral boundaries resulting from the redistribution processes.

For more information on the redistribution process:

Reporting to Parliament

Elections Canada is required to provide regular reports, both to Parliament and the public in general. This includes making public the official voting results of all federal electoral events (general elections, by-elections, and referenda). Elections Canada is also required to report to Parliament on its annual expenditures and the agency’s general administration (such as its priorities and performance).

Elections Canada also provides regular reports on Canada’s electoral system in general, offering recommendations for reform in order to ensure that the electoral system operates in a manner that is consistent with key federal legislation (such as the Canada Elections Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Elections Canada does not, however, have the power to implement reforms, only to make recommendations which Parliament and the government may or may not act upon.

International Services

Another significant activity of Elections Canada is its international services. These activities are oriented towards assisting foreign democracies in the development and operation of their elector systems. Since 1980, Elections Canada has organized approximately 400 international democratic development missions in 100 countries (Elections Canada, 2006).

Elections Canada’s international missions vary, both in terms of their length and their specific mandates. Mission types include:

  • advising on constitutional and election law provisions, as well as all aspects of election process administration;
  • conducting pre-election evaluations to assess the electoral environment and identify potential problems;
  • monitoring electoral events in other countries; and,
  • offering assistance to other countries to facilitate voting (in their elections) by their citizens living in Canada

(Source: Elections Canada, 2006)

Elections Canada’s international missions are not meant to promote Canada’s particular electoral system in other countries. Instead, they’re orientated towards identifying the different choices available to each host country and helping to implement that choice. Examples of specific international missions include: the Elections and Registration in Afghanistan Project, the International Mission for Iraqi Elections, the International Mission for Monitoring Haitian Elections, and the Canadian Mission for Accompanying Haitian Elections.

Elections Canada also participates in several bilateral and multilateral forums, with the purpose of sharing electoral knowledge and information. Examples include: the International Foundation for Election Systems; the Council on Governmental Ethics and Law; the Association of Central and Eastern European Election Officials; the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers; the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance; the Federal Electoral Institute of Mexico; the Organization of American States; and the United Nations.

For more information on Elections Canada’s international services:

Recent Events Involving Elections Canada

Recent high-profile investigations and decisions

Alleged Election Spending Violations

One of Elections Canada’s mandates is to enforce legislated election spending limits for political parties, candidates, and third parties (third parties refer to individuals and groups that are not directly running for election). In recent years, Elections Canada has undertaken a number of highly publicized investigations in this context.

In 2007, Elections Canada began investigating the federal Conservative Party over alleged violations of candidate and political party spending rules in the 2006 election. The investigation centred on the Party’s national advertising spending, and the exchange of funds between the national Party and individual candidate campaigns. As of November 2008, the Conservative Party has denied the allegations and had sued Elections Canada, claiming the agency is unfairly singling out the Party in its allegations.

Recent Elections Canada investigations have not been limited to the Conservative Party. The agency also investigated the 2006 election expenses of Blair Wilson, who was at that time the Liberal Member of Parliament for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country. In 2008, Wilson entered into a compliance agreement with Elections Canada, in which he admitted violating several sections of the Canada Elections Act. During the investigation, Wilson resigned from the federal Liberal Party caucus, and eventually joined the Green Party of Canada. He failed to be re-elected in the 2008 general election.

Elections Canada and Veiled Voting

Another recent controversy involved Elections Canada decision to allow Canadians to wear veils when voting in federal elections. The decision was implemented to protect the religious and cultural traditions of various ethnic groups in Canada. Both the ruling Conservative Party and the opposition Bloc Québécois publicly opposed the decision on the grounds that it undermined the voting process and was inconsistent with the Canada Elections Act. Elections Canada defended its position, arguing that the Act did not contain a visual recognition requirement, noting that tens of thousands of voters cast their ballot through the mail during elections. The governing Conservative Party introduced changes to the Act that would have explicitly prohibited the wearing veils while voting, but the amendment died when the 2008 election was called.

Sources and Links to More Information

List of article sources and links for more on this topic

Sources Used for this Article

Links to More Information