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7. Making Canadian Elections More AccessibleMeeting New Challenges: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada following the 43rd and 44th General Elections

The recommendations in this section would help ensure that more electors who want to vote can do so without encountering barriers. They include recommendations to make it easier for electors to return their special ballot on time; to accommodate days of religious and cultural significance for electors through a proposal for a new mechanism to do so; to consolidate improvements to voting services in long-term care institutions; and to make it easier for electors requiring assistance to vote at the polls to receive that assistance.

7.1. Reducing the Number of Late Special Ballots

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 general election saw a sharp increase in the use of special ballot voting services. Elections Canada expects this trend to continue. As reported in the Statutory Report for the 2021 general election, 90,274 special ballots were received after the relevant deadlines and had to be set aside.

Data on Special Ballots Issued for the 2021 General Election as of March 1, 2022 (With Comparative Values for the 2019 General Election)
Category of Elector Ballots Issued Ballots Returned on Time and Counted Ballots Returned on Time but Set Aside Ballots Returned Late Ballots Not Returned or Cancelled
Local 1,016,084 (401,092) 86.9% (99.0%) 0.6% (0%) 6.1% (0%) 6.1% (1.0%)
National 203,446 (243,938) 78.0% (93.8%) 0.4% (0.5%) 9.5% (1.6%) 13.5% (4.1%)
International 55,696 (55,512) 48.5% (61.5%) 0.4% (0.2%) 21.0% (11.8%) 30.1% (26.5%)
Total 1,275,226 (700,542) 83.8% (94.2%) 0.6% (0.2%) 7.3% (1.5%) 8.4% (4.1%)

Recommendations in this section aim to make it easier for electors to return their ballot in time. While each individual recommendation would have a meaningful impact, it is the individual recommendations in combination that hold out the most promise for a lasting improvement.

Fixed-Date Elections and Registration for Special Ballot Voting

Electors who desire to vote by special ballot must make an application for registration for special ballot voting after the issue of writs but before 6:00 p.m. on the 6th day before polling day. One possible solution to ensure that special ballots are received by the prescribed timeline is to allow electors to make their application earlier in the process when possible. In the context of a fixed-date election, electors should be allowed to apply for registration and special ballot 45 days before polling day (or at the issue of the writs if the writ period is longer). Elections Canada would not be allowed to send voting kits until the writs are issued, but could do so immediately thereafter for electors who had already applied. This would ensure that voting kits can be issued earlier in the election and give electors more time to return them.

A Longer Election Period for a Non-Fixed Date Election

The Act provides that polling day must take place no earlier than the 36th day and no later than the 50th day after the date the writ is issued. The Governor General, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, sets both polling day and the duration of the election period. The 2021 general election was a non-fixed date election, with the shortest election period allowed under the Act.

Electors who wish to vote by special ballot must return their special ballot before the relevant deadlines (6:00 p.m. on polling day to the special voting rules administrator in the National Capital Region; or before the close of the polling stations on polling day to the office of the returning officer) or it will be set aside. A longer election period would allow more time for a special ballot kit to be delivered to an elector and then returned to Elections Canada. The benefits of additional time for the return of special ballots are especially relevant to remote communities where the delivery and return of special ballot voting kits is dependent on a weekly mail service—a missed flight due to bad weather or mechanical issues can make returning a special ballot on time very difficult. As such, guaranteeing a longer election period of 44 days for a non-fixed date election should contribute to reducing the number of late ballots.

A longer minimum election period would also benefit electors by responding to a significant change in the voting habits of Canadians, namely, an increasing use of advance poll voting opportunities. As indicated in the chart below, 34.3 percent of the votes were cast at advance polls during the 2021 general election. If the trend continues, returning officers will soon be preparing to serve almost half the electorate before polling day, whether at advance polls or through other special voting services.

Percentage of Votes Cast at Advance Polls

Description of "Percentage of Votes Cast at Advance Polls"

Long description of Percentage of Votes Cast at Advance Polls

This line graph shows the percentage of votes cast at advance polls at every general election held between 2004 and 2021 (i.e. between the 38th and 44th general elections).

  • 2004: 9.2%
  • 2006: 10.5%
  • 2008: 11%
  • 2011: 14.2%
  • 2015: 20.8%
  • 2019: 26.6%
  • 2021: 34.3%

Despite the Act being amended a number of times to increase advance polling opportunities, the election calendar as a whole has never been adjusted to account for the increased volume of electors voting ahead of polling day. The administrative challenges at the beginning of an election period are significant: labour shortages, scarcity of vacant commercial space suitable for local Elections Canada offices and installation delays for the increasing amounts of technical equipment required for modern electoral administration. Many of these challenges flow from the basic fact that, until an election date is known, returning officers cannot secure an office to receive equipment and begin serving electors and candidates. Electors would be better served at advance polls if election administrators had more time to recruit, train workers and make preparations. It should be noted that Elections Canada partners—such as Canada Post and printers that print ballots across the country—would also benefit from a longer election period.

Voting Earlier in the Election Period

The earlier electors cast their special ballot, the more likely it is that it will be received before the deadline. Under the Act, an application for registration for special ballot can be made immediately after the issue of the writs. However, the official list of candidates only becomes available 19 days before polling day. Currently, electors must write down the name of the candidate for whom they wish to vote on the ballot; if the candidate's nomination is rejected or the party endorses a different candidate, the elector's ballot would be rejected.

Where parties have not yet nominated candidates, or where electors cannot recall the name of the candidate of their choice, electors sometimes mark their ballot with the name of the party with whom the candidate is affiliated. Currently, in accordance with the Act, ballots marked only with the name of a political party rather than a candidate are rejected.

Allowing special ballots marked with a candidate's political affiliation (rather than their name) to be counted—as is the case in provincial elections in Saskatchewan and British Columbia—would enable electors to complete their special ballot earlier and increase their chance of having it delivered to Elections Canada before the relevant deadline.

Earlier Candidate Nomination Deadlines

Currently, nomination applications must be received 21 days before polling day, and nominations must be confirmed by returning officers 19 days before polling day. Setting close of nominations at day 24 before polling day would ensure electors who wish to vote for a specific candidate have more time to complete and return a special ballot. While this shortens the period of time for candidates to complete their nomination papers, the pre-registration recommendation made earlier in this report, if enacted, would ensure that candidates have sufficient time. While a three-day acceleration of the nomination process would seem to promise only a marginal improvement, it is precisely in the three days following polling day that the majority of late ballots are received.

As an additional benefit, moving the close of nominations from 21 days before polling day to 24 days before polling day would allow the printing of ordinary ballots to start earlier and help ensure they are delivered in time for advance polling in remote communities. This is especially relevant in light of the continued increase in electors choosing to vote at advance polls. Delivery of printed ballots in remote communities can be extremely challenging: during the last general election, the CEO adapted the Act to allow for the photocopying of ballots by the returning officer for use at advance polling stations in some remote communities in Nunavut.

Flexibility for Electors

In some instances, electors apply for a special ballot but, for various reasons (e.g. ballot is lost or damaged), may be unable to use it. Allowing an elector who has applied for a special ballot to vote at ordinary polls is currently prohibited by the Act for integrity reasons. During the 2021 general election, the CEO adapted the relevant provisions to allow electors to cast an ordinary ballot in such circumstances, as long as a voting status certificate was completed, including a declaration that the elector has not previously voted. Integrity concerns were addressed through measures applied the day after the polls closed—including verifying polling place records to ensure that double-voting had not occurred. It would be advisable to legislate to make this temporary adaptation permanent.

Continuing the Return of Outer Envelopes to Polling Stations

During the 2021 general election, the CEO adapted the Act to temporarily allow local electors (those voting by special ballot within their own electoral district) to return their outer envelope containing their ballot to any of the electoral district's polling places on polling day. The outer envelopes received at the polling places were then delivered in person by an election officer to the returning officer to undergo integrity checks (including ensuring that no elector voted more than once) and the verification process and, subsequently, to be counted. This option to return the special ballot to a polling place on polling day was modeled on measures proposed in Bill C-19, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (COVID-19 response).

In addition to the sheer volume of special ballots received during the 2021 general election, the option to return a special ballot to a polling place contributed to the delay in the final vote count in some electoral districts. This delay was well publicized by Elections Canada in advance and, in most electoral districts, preliminary results were such that the special ballot count did not affect the outcome of the vote in that electoral district. By September 23, three days after polling day, 291 electoral districts (86 percent) had completed their count of special ballots. By September 26, all electoral districts had finalized their counts.

Data for the 2021 general election shows that a significant number of electors used this new option to return their outer envelope to their returning officer. Nationwide, it is estimated that approximately 30,500 special ballots were returned to a polling place. That said, the number of ballots returned by polling place varied significantly, with many small polling places receiving none and larger ones receiving several. Geographic circumstances in very large electoral districts have also prevented this option from being available in some locations. This indicates a need for flexibility.

Prohibiting Interference with Ballots and Special Ballots

The Act prohibits a person from altering, defacing or destroying a ballot but does not directly prohibit them from altering, defacing or destroying a special ballot. Also, while the Act prohibits interfering with an elector who is marking a ballot or special ballot, there is no prohibition to interfere with the mark made by an elector on a ballot or special ballot.

The Act also prohibits a person from destroying, taking, opening or otherwise interfering with a ballot box or book or packet of ballots or special ballots but does not prohibit interfering with the inner or outer envelope that appears to contain a ballot or special ballot marked by an elector.

The Act should be amended to correct these omissions and to increase confidence in electoral integrity.

Recommendation 7.1.1

  • To reduce barriers to voting by special ballot, amend the Act as follows:
    • Allow electors to make their application for registration and special ballot 45 days before polling day (or at the issue of the writs if the election period is more than 45 days) in the context of a fixed date election.
    • Amend the Act to set a minimum election period of 44 days for a non-fixed date election.
    • Authorize the counting of special ballots marked with a political party name rather than a candidate name.
    • Amend the Act to set the deadline for the close of candidate nominations on day 24 before polling day.
    • Authorize electors to cast a ballot at ordinary polls, with appropriate integrity measures in place, despite having previously applied to vote by special ballot.
    • Authorize local electors to return their ballots before the close of polls to any place in the electoral district that the CEO designates.
  • To increase confidence in the integrity of the ballot and in the special ballot voting mechanism:
    • Establish new offences prohibiting altering, defacing or destroying a special ballot, tampering with an elector's mark on a ballot or special ballot and prohibiting tampering with an inner or outer envelope that appears to contain a marked ballot or special ballot.

7.2. Days of Religious and Cultural Significance

Some communities celebrate annual religious holidays or days of cultural significance on multiple consecutive days and these days can change from year to year. When the dates of such religious or cultural events coincide with those of ordinary and/or advance polls, some electors may not have the opportunity to vote. Significant barriers may also be experienced by religiously observant candidates.

Since 2007, the Act has provided for a general election to be held on a fixed date: the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following the previous general election. That said, the Act includes a mechanism for varying polling day in the context of a fixed-date general election where the CEO is of the opinion that the third Monday in October is "not suitable for that purpose" because of a conflict with a day of cultural or religious significance or a provincial or municipal election. When this is the case, the CEO may recommend to the Governor in Council that an alternate polling day be chosen: either the Tuesday immediately following the Monday or the Monday a week later.

The 2019 general election presented challenges with respect to both the fixed date and the mechanism for varying the fixed date. In 2019, and likely again in future years, both polling day and the advance polling period that occurs one week prior to polling day (and significant portions of the writ period) fell on days of religious significance to the observant Jewish community. Several months before the election, members of the community requested that the CEO recommend an alternate polling date.

While the Act provides for a mechanism for the CEO to vary a fixed date by making a recommendation to the Governor in Council, the timeframe provided by the Act for making this recommendation—up to August 1 in the year of the election—was and will remain problematic. Any change to the electoral calendar so close to polling day would have a significant impact on the availability of polling places and, by extension, on the accessibility of voting services for the population at large. It would also impact the ability of parties and candidates to plan and budget for the election.

During the 2019 general election, the CEO committed to a post-election review of the fixed election date concept and to consultations with communities. A critical finding of these consultations is that the fixed date as set out in the Act will continue to create a conflict with days of religious or cultural significance in years to come. For many Indigenous communities, October coincides with traditional hunting and cultural activities. Other communities of interest may also be concerned about potential conflicts.

With that in mind, Elections Canada recommends amending the provisions in the Act to allow for polling day to occur during a set period (e.g. within the first four weeks beginning in October) in the fourth calendar year following the previous general election. In the third calendar year following the previous general election, the CEO should be required under the Act to hold consultations with religious and cultural communities and make a recommendation to the Governor in Council with respect to the date for polling day. The Governor in Council should then be required to set the date for the general election within a month of receiving the CEO's recommendation. While the Governor in Council would not be bound by the CEO's recommendation, the date set would still have to be within the statutory window. This process would retain significant predictability while providing sufficient flexibility to ensure an inclusive electoral process for all religious and cultural communities.

This new process would not affect the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General's discretion.

Recommendation 7.2.1

  • To improve the accessibility of the election by setting an inclusive election date, amend the Act as follows:
    • Provide for a designated period in the fourth year following the previous general election (e.g. within the first four weeks beginning in October) within which polling day must occur.
    • Require Elections Canada to consult with religious and cultural communities regarding an appropriate date for polling day one year before the designated election period.
    • Require the CEO to make a public recommendation to the Governor in Council regarding polling day, based on their consultations. The CEO's recommendation should be made no later than 12 months prior to the beginning of the designated period.
    • Require the Governor in Council, within one month of receiving the recommendation, to either adopt the date recommended by the CEO or to choose another date within the designated period and issue an Order in Council to that effect.

7.3. Improving Service to Long-Term Care Facilities

Flexible Voting Services

The tragic impact of the pandemic on vulnerable residents of long-term care facilities, (defined in the Act as institutions where seniors or people with disabilities reside) meant that it was simply not feasible to deliver voting services as usual to these electors. Electors resident in long-term care facilities are typically served by "mobile polls": a team of election officers serving multiple facilities in sequence throughout the electoral district. Given the risk of contagion, having election officers visit facilities in sequence was not an available option.

As a result, the CEO adapted relevant provisions of the Act to provide additional flexibility for voting at long-term care residences. Specifically, the CEO authorized the creation of smaller polling divisions consisting of one institution or part of an institution. This allowed single polls to be established in some facilities. In addition, the CEO extended over several days the period when voting could occur in residences and allowed flexible voting hours.

These adaptations, consistent with what was proposed in Bill C-19 and the CEO's earlier recommendations, provided ways to deliver voting services that were tailored to the needs of each facility, its clientele and applicable provincial public health requirements. While the pandemic environment led to these adaptations, flexibility as to the day and time when voting can occur in residences would continue to be useful in a non-pandemic environment, as facilities have varying populations and needs. The option to group institutions to create a polling division served by a mobile poll should be maintained.

Facilitating Proof of Residence

Many residents of long-term care facilities experience difficulty proving their residence as required by the Act. Beyond the basic fact that there are few government-issued documents that state an elector's address, the difficulty is often exacerbated in long-term care facilities because identity documents are held off-site by family members; or, in the case of drivers' licences (the most commonly used proof of residence), are simply not available due to the physical or mental condition of the resident. While these electors may legally rely on a letter of attestation from their facility administrator, providing such letters to electors is an additional burden on these institutions.

To address this barrier, the Act should be amended to exempt residents of long-term care facilities from the requirement to provide proof of residence when voting in the facility. In many cases electors in long-term care facilities are served at their bedside or in their rooms and, more generally, given the circumstances of residents, there is minimal risk that they will be resident elsewhere and vote in the wrong electoral district. Such residents should only be required to provide proof of identity when voting in the facility.

Recommendation 7.3.1

  • To reduce barriers to voting for residents of long-term care facilities, amend the Act as follows:
    • Authorize additional flexibility for voting days and times in such facilities.
    • Allow electors residing in long-term care facilities to vote with proof of identity only when voting in the facility.

7.4. Electors Requiring Assistance to Vote

The Act authorizes electors to request and receive assistance at the polls, including to mark their ballot. Individuals who provide assistance must make a declaration that they will preserve the secrecy of the vote. They are subject to penalties if they fail to do so.

The Act allows such assistance to be provided by either an election officer, a friend, the elector's spouse or common-law partner, or a relative. This list is very specific and does not appear to contemplate that electors with disabilities are often assisted at the polls by caregivers or personal support workers. These trusted assistants are neither family nor friends, and the strict definition of the Act does not reflect the professional nature of the relationship.

Despite this, caregivers often assist electors at the polls as "friends," as there is no requirement to prove the individual's status as a friend or relative. This is not a sustainable option, however. Treating a professional relationship as a "friendship" may be demeaning for both the elector and the caregiver. To many, it may appear that a government entity is denying the reality of their situation.

Furthermore, since election workers have no means of verifying that an individual is in fact a "friend" or a "relative", these distinctions are not meaningfully enforced. The regime can be confusing and stressful for vulnerable electors, and it is not clear that the provisions as drafted strike an appropriate balance between integrity and accessibility.

In light of these issues, the Act should be amended to allow an elector to request assistance to mark their ballot from any individual of the elector's choosing, provided the individual makes the required solemn declaration as family members do now. This simple rule would be better understood and would allow electors requiring assistance to obtain it from an individual they know and trust at this important step in the voting process.

Recommendation 7.4.1

  • To remove barriers, amend the Act to allow an elector to request assistance to mark their ballot from any individual of the elector's choosing, providing the individual makes the solemn declaration required.