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The Evolution of the Federal Electoral Process

The voters lists

The first federal enumeration took place in 1917, using the provincial voters lists as a basis, but it was 1930 before a federal door-to-door enumeration process was established. Between 1920 and 1930, provincial voters lists were used for federal elections.

An attempt to develop a permanent voters list in 1934 was abandoned in 1938 after being used for the election of 1935. The technology of the time was insufficient to overcome the logistical obstacles. By the early 1990s, however, technology had evolved to the point where customized software could be developed specifically to produce preliminary and official voters lists, in a format that could be imported into most word processing, spreadsheet and database software applications. Since the October 1992 federal referendum, computerized voters lists have been produced using database software developed specifically for that purpose.

In 1996, amendments to the Canada Elections Act and the Referendum Act provided for holding a final federal enumeration to serve as the foundation for the National Register of Electors, which now serves as the basis for the preliminary voters lists for federal electoral events. This final enumeration was held in April 1997. By eliminating enumeration, the legislation also reduced the election period from a minimum of 47 days to 36.

Voting procedures

Between 1920 and 1993, only certain categories of electors were permitted to vote at advance polls. Today any elector may vote at the advance polls.

Transfer certificates were introduced in 1920 for use by candidates and their representatives, and by certain election officials whose work made it impossible for them to vote at their own polling stations on election day. Eligibility for transfer certificates was extended in 1977 and again in 1992 and 2000.

The Special Voting Rules, first introduced during World War I, provide electors who are unable to get to their polling stations either on election day or at the advance polls with a means to vote that protects both the security and the secrecy of their ballots. Eligibility for the special ballot has been extended several times since its inception and has been almost universal since 1993.

In 1996, the times for opening and closing the polls on election day were staggered across time zones, so that a majority of the results are available at approximately the same time across the country. The length of time the polls are open for voting was increased by 1 hour to 12, and the number of hours that must be available to employees to vote during the time that the polls are open was reduced to 3 from 4.

Since the adoption of Bill C-2 in 2000, an elector who, because of a physical disability, cannot go to a polling station or to the office of the returning officer, or who cannot mark a ballot, may vote at his or her home in the presence of an election officer and a witness chosen by the elector. In addition, the Chief Electoral Officer may devise and test alternative voting techniques for future use.

Candidates and parties

In 1948, the electoral legislation was amended to require that candidates be qualified as electors. In 1970, the number of signatures required on nomination papers was increased from 10 to 25 (a return to the number required before 1920) and in 1993 the number increased again, to 100. For the large and thinly populated electoral districts listed in Schedule 3 of the Act, the number of signatures is 50. In 1993, the deposit required at nomination was increased from $200 to $1,000. Today, this deposit is completely refundable, on the condition that the candidate fulfills the requirements of the Act concerning reports and unused official receipts.

Since 1970, parties have had the option of registering with the Chief Electoral Officer. Registration brings with it strict reporting requirements, but also several benefits. For example, a candidate endorsed by a registered party may have the party affiliation shown on the ballot, and registered parties are entitled to an allotment of paid and free broadcasting time during general elections. There are also financial advantages to registration. For example, registered parties are eligible for reimbursement of a percentage of their election expenses, according to a formula set out in the legislation, and donations to the party are tax-deductible, with a maximum tax credit of $650.

In 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that provisions in the Canada Elections Act requiring a registered party to nominate at least 50 candidates in a general election infringed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Parliament responded with Bill C-3, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act, which allows the registration of any party that runs at least one candidate in a general election or by-election and complies with the requirements of the Act.

The number of registered political parties increased from 4 at the 1972 general election to 12 at the general election of 2004. The number of candidates standing for election federally has increased significantly over the years: from 632 in 1921 to 1,808 in 2000. The number declined to 1,685 in 2004, partly because of the merger of two major political parties.

Third parties

With the adoption of Bill C-2 in 2000, persons and groups who are not registered political parties, nor riding associations, nor candidates, and who spend more than $500 for election advertising during an electoral period, must register themselves as third parties. They were subject to a spending limit of $3,000 per electoral district, up to a maximum of $150,000 for election advertising in 2000; this base amount is adjusted for inflation whenever writs of election are issued.

Registered third parties must submit a report on the cost of their advertising and the source of the funds used to pay for it. The report must declare every contribution over the amount of $200 received during a period starting six months before the issue of the writs and ending on election day. Third parties are subject to the same restrictions as political parties and candidates in relation to election advertising and election opinion surveys.

Third parties are not reimbursed for their expenses, and do not have the right to issue receipts for tax purposes.


Income tax receipts for contributions to political parties were not available before 1974, at which time political parties became subject to an election expenses limit and had to disclose revenues and expenses in a return submitted to the Chief Electoral Officer. In 1996, the Canada Elections Act was amended to stipulate that only those registered parties that received at least two percent of the valid votes cast nationally or at least five percent of the valid votes cast in the electoral districts in which they endorsed a candidate were eligible to receive the reimbursement of 22.5 percent of their election expenses provided for in the Act.

In 2003, Parliament passed Bill C-24, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act (political financing). The amendments significantly tightened the rules for political contributions and the financial activities of parties and candidates. Among other provisions, the new legislation introduced limits on political contributions and a ban on contributions from unions and corporations to registered parties and their leadership contestants.

The amendments also extended those provisions to cover electoral district associations and nomination and leadership contestants. Disclosure and registration requirements for political entities were similarly extended, and financial reports for registered political parties and registered associations must now include statements of assets and liabilities, as well as all sources of revenue and contributions, including non-monetary contributions.

C-24 also established a publicly funded system of quarterly allowances for registered political parties, based on the number of votes they obtained in the previous general election. (In 2012, Bill C-13 provided for allowances to be phased out by 2015.)

Registered political parties that obtain at least two percent of the total valid votes cast in a general election, or five percent of the valid votes cast in the ridings where they have endorsed candidates, are entitled to a reimbursement of 50 percent of their actual election expenses paid.

Candidates may issue tax receipts for contributions to their campaigns and receive a partial reimbursement of their expenses. A candidate who is elected, or obtains at least 10 percent of the valid votes cast in the riding, receives a reimbursement of 15 percent of the expenses limit for that riding shortly after the return of the writs. If the candidate also complies with all the post-election requirements of the Act, he or she qualifies for a second instalment representing a reimbursement of 60 percent of actual election and personal expenses paid, minus the amount already received. The total reimbursement may not exceed 60 percent of the election expenses limit for the riding.

All candidates are entitled to full refunds of their $1,000 deposits, provided they comply with the reporting requirements of the Act and return unused official receipts within certain deadlines.


Until 1992, there was no federal referendum legislation. The 1992 referendum was the first event ever conducted under the Referendum Act. Previous plebiscites were held under enabling legislation.

Electoral boundaries

The use of independent electoral district boundaries commissions to set electoral district boundaries began in 1964. The boundaries are redrawn after each decennial (10-year) census to ensure that representation reflects population shifts in accordance with the Constitution Act, 1867, and the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (1985, as amended). The most recent readjustment began in 2012, taking effect for the 2015 general election. The total number of seats in the House of Commons increased from 308 to 338, with 15 additional seats attributed to Ontario, 6 more for each of British Columbia and Alberta, and 3 more for Quebec.

Enforcing the rules

The position of Election Expenses Commissioner was established in 1974 under the Election Expenses Act. The title was changed to Commissioner of Canada Elections in 1977, when the Commissioner's powers were expanded to ensure that all the provisions of the Canada Elections Act were observed and applied. In 2014, Bill C-23 moved the position of Commissioner of Canada Elections to within the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

A History of the Vote in Canada

For a thorough study of the evolution of the federal electoral process, see A History of the Vote in Canada (Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada for the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, 1997).

An abundantly illustrated Web module featuring highlights from the book was produced in co-operation with the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

December 2014