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Potential Impacts of Extended Advance Voting on Voter Turnout

A Comparative Overview

Several countries facilitate voting by providing more voting opportunities, but no single provision is followed by all countries. The use of alternative voting methods varies from one country to another, and the expanded voting time frame of Bill C-55 would make Canada a unique case in the world. To our knowledge, only Swedish legislative electoral law provides a similar combination of voting opportunities.Footnote 2

An important number of democratic countries in the world practice advance voting. In the sample of 61 democratic countries examined in the present study, 20 use advance voting. Only three (Estonia, Canada and Sweden) provide this opportunity to all electors without special cause (Massicotte et al. 2003). Other countries offer this option only to electors who are unable to vote on election day, for reasons such as their employment situation or a physical disability. The table "Polling Day and Advance Voting in Selected Countries" (see Appendix A) indicates that among the 18 countries included in the analysis that allow advance voting, only eight offer advance voting on a Sunday as an option. Furthermore, Sweden is the only country that allows advance voting on the day immediately preceding election day, which is held on Sunday. In other countries, the usual practice is to establish a minimum number of days for advance voting prior to election day.

Another practice is holding election day on a day of rest or a holiday. In the sample of 61 democratic countries studied by Blais et al. (2003), 73 percent hold elections on a day of rest (either on the weekend or on a public holiday specially called for the election). Another study reports that 58 percent (56 out of 96) of surveyed countries (including democratic as well as non- democratic ones) hold elections on Sunday, and in 70 percent of them, voting takes place on Saturday or Sunday (The Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec 2004).

Arguments both for and against holding the election on a day of rest are multiple. Proponents contend that voting on a day of rest is easier, because electors have more time to go to the polls than on a weekday, when most people have to work. Moreover, schools – which are frequently used for polling stations – are readily available on days of rest or holidays, while on weekdays they can sometimes be used only if schoolchildren are granted a holiday (Massicotte et al. 2003). The Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec (2004) has recommended Sunday voting for several reasons: easier recruitment of polling day personnel, easier access to schools, elimination of inconvenience for parents whose children are granted a holiday if polling day is a weekday, elimination of difficulties for some employers to grant their employees time off to allow them to vote, and increased access for older electors and electors with special needs. Opponents object that people may prefer to take advantage of a day off for other activities and may not bother to vote. The Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (Lortie Commission) (1991) noted that a majority of party activists as well as of the general population appeared to dislike the idea of Sunday voting. Therefore, they recommended keeping Monday as election day for federal elections.

One solution – and this is the one proposed in Bill C-55 – is to have two similar consecutive voting days, one on the Sunday immediately preceding election day and one on a weekday, for instance on a Monday. The assumption is that some people prefer voting on a day of rest while others prefer a weekday, and that making the two options available is bound to help.

Having two consecutive days of regular voting is a very rare provision in electoral legislations. Multiplying the number of polling days increases the cost of elections. An overwhelming majority of democratic countries hold their legislative elections on a single day; very few countries hold elections on two consecutive days. As far as we know, those that do are the Czech Republic (Friday and Saturday), Namibia (either Tuesday and Wednesday or Wednesday and Thursday) and ZimbabweFootnote 3 (Saturday and Sunday). Slovakia practised two consecutive days of regular voting in 1994 and 1998, but the electoral law was amended in 2004, and since then only one voting day is allowed. However, it is interesting to note that in the Czech Republic, no other alternative voting methods are allowed. Likewise, no advance, proxy or postal voting was allowed in Slovakia when the country practised two consecutive voting daysFootnote 4 (in Namibia, apart from polling day, only advance voting is allowed, and that is restricted to some groups, and in Zimbabwe, only postal voting is practised).

Finally, it should be noted that no jurisdiction in Canada has recently used Sunday voting or two consecutive voting days. Sunday voting was experimented with once in Quebec, in 1966. Federal and provincial electoral laws are clear: election day cannot be held on a holiday. Advance voting is universally accepted by all Canadian jurisdictions, but almost none allows advance voting procedures on the day immediately preceding election day. The exception is Newfoundland and Labrador where advance voting may be held on one or more of the seven days immediately preceding the ordinary polling day. However, advance voting has never been held there on the day immediately preceding polling day. Advance voting may be held on Sunday in Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan (see Appendix B).

Footnote 2 In Sweden, advance voting starts 18 days before election day and goes on continuously until election day. At least one voting place in each municipality is also open for advance voting on election day. This is a service for voters who cannot go to their polling station during regular voting hours on election day and who have not been able to vote during the previous 18 days.

Footnote 3 It should be noted, however that, according to Freedom House, Zimbabwe is not a democratic country.

Footnote 4 Since the 2004 electoral law reform in Slovakia, postal voting is allowed.