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Elections in Canada: An Overview

Canada's electoral system is the product of a 140-year process, through which Canadians have progressively achieved a universal, constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. Canadians elect members of Parliament to the House of Commons to make decisions and pass laws on their behalf. Regular elections ensure continued support to elected members of Parliament and allow for peaceful changes of government.

Representation in the House of Commons is based on geographical divisions known as electoral districts – currently 338. Canada's electoral system is referred to as a "single-member plurality" or "first-past-the-post" system.

For a general election, the Governor General, at the request of the Prime Minister, dissolves Parliament, and the Governor in Council sets the date of the election and the date by which the writs must be returned. By law, the time between the issue of the writs and election day must be a minimum of 36 days.

Canada's electoral process has evolved in response to the country's geography. Unevenly spread across a land of some 10 million square kilometres, more than 23 million Canadians are eligible to vote on the same day. Voting hours are staggered across the country's six time zones to make election results available at just about the same time everywhere in Canada.

Elections Canada, which is headed by the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, is the non-partisan agency responsible for the conduct of federal elections, by-elections and referendums.

The Chief Electoral Officer is appointed by a resolution of the House of Commons, so that all parties represented there may contribute to the selection process. Since the position was created in 1920, there have been six chief electoral officers, all of whom were appointed by a unanimous resolution. Once appointed, the incumbent reports directly to Parliament and is thus completely independent of government and political parties. The Chief Electoral Officer serves until retirement (that is, at the age of 65) or resignation; he or she can be removed only for cause, by the Governor General following a joint address of the House of Commons and Senate.

The mandate of the Chief Electoral Officer is set out in legislation (the Canada Elections Act and the Referendum Act), and includes the registration of political entities and referendum committees, maintenance of the National Register of Electors, disclosing political entities' financial returns, and ensuring access to voting for all eligible citizens, through both physical facilities and public education and information programs.

The Chief Electoral Officer appoints a returning officer for each electoral district to prepare for and conduct an election of a member of Parliament to represent that district.

The National Register of Electors is updated with information (name, address, sex and date of birth) supplied by provincial, territorial and federal data sources between electoral events, and by electors themselves during federal electoral events.

Returning officers update the lists for each riding during the revision period, which takes place during an election. Targeted revision is conducted in specific areas, including high-mobility areas, new developments, and areas with low demographic coverage, shelters, and long-term institutions.

The Canada Elections Act offers a variety of ways to vote. Electors can vote on election day at a regular poll or a mobile poll, during three days of advance polls, or by special ballot through the mail or at the office of their returning officer. In certain circumstances when an elector has a physical disability, the elector can vote at home in the presence of a witness.

Following the close of the polls, the results are compiled in the polling stations by the deputy returning officer in the presence of the poll clerk, and candidates or their representatives, or, if none are present, at least two electors. The outcome of the election is known within a few hours of the close of the polls. Preliminary election results are published on election night on Elections Canada's Web site.

Given that the right to vote is a fundamental democratic right that is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and in keeping with the mandate of the Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada has developed many initiatives to provide public information and education to make the electoral process better known to the public, especially to groups identified on the basis of low voter turnout or those who may face difficulties in exercising their franchise. This includes members of Aboriginal communities, ethnocultural communities, youth and members of special needs groups (including electors with a disability and persons living in transitional situations, such as homeless persons and persons living in a shelter for victims of abuse).

June 2007