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Results, Validation, Recounts, and Contested Elections: What Happens After Voting in a Federal Election

Unofficial Results

Following the close of a poll, an election officer assigned to the poll counts the votes in the presence of another election officer assigned to the poll and any candidates or their representatives who are present or, if none are present, at least two electors. At the count, the election officer must, in the following order:

  • count the electors who voted and enter the number on the list of electors and the Events Log
  • count the electors to whom a registration certificate was given and enter the number on the list of electors and the Events Log
  • count the spoiled ballots, place them in the envelope provided for that purpose, indicate the number on the envelope, and seal the envelope
  • count the unused ballots, place them (with the stubs of the used ballots) in the envelope provided for that purpose, indicate the number on the envelope, and seal the envelope
  • ensure that all ballots provided are accounted for

The election officer then unseals the top of the ballot box and proceed with the count.

During the count, the election officer examines each ballot, shows it to each person present and asks another election officer to tally the vote in favour of the candidate for whom the vote was cast. The other election officer (along with any of the candidates or their representatives who also wish to do so) keeps a tally of the votes for each candidate.

Ballots must be rejected if they were not supplied by an election officer, were improperly marked (including those voided by the elector), were cast for a person other than a candidate, or if there is any writing or mark by which the elector could be identified.

The election officer keeps a record of every objection to a ballot made by any candidates or their representatives, gives a number to that objection, writes that number on the ballot and initials it. The objections are noted in the Events Log. The election officer's decision can only be reversed by a judge on a judicial recount or on an application to contest the election.

After the count, the election officer fills out a statement of the vote, recording the number of votes in favour of each candidate and the number of rejected ballots. In this statement, the election officer has to account for all ballots received at that poll. The election officer then calls in the unofficial results to the returning officer, who makes them public, immediately. The published results remain incomplete until all results have been called in from all polls. Candidates or their representatives present during the count at a poll have the right to receive a copy of the statement of the vote.

The envelopes that contain the marked ballots, spoiled ballots, unused and rejected ballots are sealed along with any other election documents (except for the statements of the vote and registration certificates) in a large envelope provided for that purpose. That envelope and the envelope that contains the copy of the statement of the vote are placed in the ballot box, which is sealed and delivered to the office of the returning officer. Four envelopes are delivered to the returning officer with the ballot box: the envelope containing the original statement of the vote, the envelope containing solemn declarations signed by electors, the envelope containing copies of the documents produced at regular intervals on election day identifying electors who have voted, and the envelope containing the registration certificates of electors who registered on polling day.

Validation of the Results

The validation of the results of a vote is done by a returning officer generally in the week following polling day. At a validation, the returning officer verifies the cumulative addition of the individual results recorded and reported by each poll on the statement of the vote.

The returning officer validates the results in the presence of the assistant returning officer and any candidates or their representatives or, if none are present, at least two electors. The date, time and place of the validation are indicated in the Notice of Election published by the returning officer at the beginning of the election period. The validation may not proceed if the returning officer has not received all ballot boxes and the results of electors voting by special ballot. In those cases, the returning officer adjourns the proceeding for not more than seven days. If the missing ballot boxes or special ballot results have not been received on the seventh day, the returning officer may make further adjournments that do not exceed a total of two weeks. The Canada Elections Act contains specific provisions on how to proceed if a ballot box has been destroyed or remains missing.

The validation is done on the basis of the statements of the vote prepared at the polls. If a statement of the vote is missing, appears to contain an error, to be incomplete or to have been altered, or is disputed by a candidate or their representative, the returning officer may open the ballot box to retrieve a copy of the statement of the vote that was placed in the box by the election officer on polling day. If the copy of the statement of the vote is not found, the returning officer may use the information that is written on the envelopes that contain the ballots.

During the validation, the returning officer must not open an envelope that appears to contain ballots. They cannot recount the votes nor deal with any issues respecting irregularities at the poll.

Once validation has been completed, the original certificate of the returning officer validating the result of votes is delivered to the Chief Electoral Officer and a copy is provided to the candidates or their representatives. Without delay after the sixth day following the validation, or without delay after the completion of a judicial recount, the returning officer declares elected the candidate who obtained the largest number of votes by completing the return of the writ and transmitting the completed writ document to the Chief Electoral Officer. If the two candidates with the largest number of votes have an equal number of votes, the returning officer indicates that fact on the election writ. In such a case, a by-election will need to be held.

The Chief Electoral Officer has no authority to correct or otherwise alter results that have been validated by a returning officer. The only review mechanisms open for validated results are a judicial recount or contested election application.

Judicial Recounts

A judicial recount is a new tabulation of the votes cast for an electoral district, presided over by a judge of a superior court of the province or territory.

A judicial recount must take place if the leading candidates in an electoral district receive the same number of votes after the validation of the results or if the difference in votes is less than one one-thousandth of the total votes cast*. For example, in an electoral district where 40,000 votes were cast, if the difference in the number of votes for the first and second candidates was less than 40, a judicial recount would be required. The returning officer must make a request to a judge for a judicial recount and must also write to the candidates or their official agents to advise them of the recount request.

The judge must fix the date for a recount within four days after they receive the request.

A request to a judge to carry out a judicial recount may also be made by any elector, including a candidate. Notice in writing must be provided to the returning officer in the appropriate electoral district before a request may be made to a judge. The request must be presented within four days of the validation of the results and must include an affidavit stating that the count was improperly carried out, that ballots were improperly rejected, that the statement of the vote contains an incorrect number of votes cast for a candidate, or that the returning officer incorrectly added up the results at the validation. The applicant must deposit $250 with the court as security for the costs of the candidate who obtained the largest number of votes. If the judge agrees to proceed with a recount, it must begin within four days of the receipt of the application. Judicial recounts deal solely with the tabulation and counting of votes. Concerns about fraud and irregularities in the electoral process are addressed through a contested election application.

Unless one has the permission of the judge, the only people permitted to be present at a recount are the judge, the returning officer, the staff appointed by the returning officer, the recount teams, the candidates, a maximum of two representatives for each candidate who are not members of a recount team, one legal counsel for each candidate and legal counsel for the Chief Electoral Officer. A recount can be conducted in one of three ways: the judge can add the number of votes reported in the statements of the vote, recount the valid ballots or recount all of the ballots (including the rejected ballots). The judge then totals the ballots cast for each candidate (according to the procedure chosen).

Except in the case of an automatic recount, a judge may at any time terminate a recount on request in writing by the person who applied for the recount.

At the conclusion of the recount, the judge delivers a certificate stating the results of the process and returns all election materials and election documents to the returning officer. If there is no tie vote, the returning officer writes the name of the winning candidate on the writ of election and returns the document to the Chief Electoral Officer.

The results of a judicial recount are final and cannot be corrected or altered by a returning officer or the Chief Electoral Officer.

Contested Elections

All concerns respecting the regularity of an election–other than for matters that are handled through judicial recounts–are addressed through the contested election process. After a person is declared elected, any elector who was eligible to vote in the electoral district or any candidate in that electoral district may bring an application for a contested election before a judge, either in a provincial superior court or in the Federal Court.

In a contested election proceeding, a judge is required to determine whether the person who won the election were eligible to be a candidate or whether there were any other irregularities, fraud, or corrupt or illegal practices that affected the result of the election. The Chief Electoral Officer along with the Attorney General, the concerned returning officer, the candidates in the election and the person bringing the application are all parties to a contested election proceeding. This is a court proceeding at the end of which the judge either dismisses the application or annuls the result of the election.

An appeal from this decision can be brought to the Supreme Court of Canada.

August 2019

* This is also called an automatic judicial recount.