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Policy on Selecting Suitable Polling Places

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Table of Contents

Note: The masculine gender is used throughout without bias, in the interest of simplicity and ease of reading.

1. Purpose

Following general elections and by-elections, electors provide feedback on various issues regarding the choice of polling places, such as building accessibility, proximity to elector residence, and familiarity. Elections Canada is committed to responding to elector feedback and explaining the guiding principles behind the selection of polling places.

The purpose of the Policy on Selecting Suitable Polling Places (the Policy) is to inform the public and political entities about the principles that must be taken into consideration by returning officers (ROs) when selecting a polling place.

The Policy outlines the legal requirements, the principles, and the considerations taken into account when selecting polling places so Canadians can exercise their right to vote.

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2. Application

This Policy applies to a federal general election, by-election or referendum. It is based on legislation, human rights and operational principles. It applies to the selection of facilities in which electors may cast a ballot in person on ordinary polling day and on advance polling days. It also applies to the selection of facilities where a special ballot may be cast in person, specifically at the RO's office, at an additional assistant returning officer (AARO) office and at AARO-external service points (ESPs). It does not apply to the voting processes for incarcerated electors, remote worker facilities or on Canadian Forces Bases, nor does it apply to polling stations installed in hospitals or in single buildings.

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3. Definitions

Additional assistant returning officer (AARO) office: An AARO office is a satellite office to the RO's office, and is typically located in a specific geographic area that cannot be easily served by the RO's office.

AARO-external service point (ESP): An AARO office, but one that is open for specific days during an election and targets specific groups of electors such as, but not limited to, students in post-secondary institutions and Indigenous electors.

Advance polling: Voting that takes place before ordinary polling day, as described as advance polling in the Canada Elections Act.

Advance polling district: Consists of one or more polling divisions. An advance polling place is established for one or more advance polling districts.

Electoral district (ED): Commonly known as a riding, a geographic area represented by a member of Parliament. There are currently 338 EDs.

Level access: Flat or gently sloping access from the street to the voting room inside a polling place. Level access allows electors in wheelchairs to access the polling station.

Mobile poll: A polling division constituted by an RO, which consists of two or more institutions where seniors or persons with a physical disability reside.

Polling division: Local geographic area that usually consists of between 200 and 500 electors. Each ED is divided into numerous polling divisions.

Polling place: A facility that has been selected to host in-person voting, such as RO and AARO offices, AARO-ESP, and ordinary and advance polling stations.

Polling station: The table in the polling place at which electors cast their vote.

Returning officer (RO): The election officer responsible, under the general direction of the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), for the preparation and the conduct of an electoral event in an ED.

Returning officer's office (RO's office): Also known as the local Elections Canada office. Set up in each ED at the start of each electoral event. It is the place from which the RO and their staff administer the election, and serve the public and political entities during an electoral event.

Service area: Geographic area where electors are served by a specific polling place.

Suitability: The state of a facility that meets certain requirements to be selected as a polling place. These are related to accessibility, proximity, familiarity, technology and other operational requirements.

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4. Effective date

The Policy is effective as of the day of its publication. It may be reviewed and revised at the discretion of the Deputy Chief Electoral Officer.

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5. Key principles

A polling place is suitable when it reaches a balance among three key principles: accessibility, proximity and familiarity.

Accessibility – It is a priority that polling places provide barrier-free access for persons with disabilities. The Canada Elections Act, subsection 121(1) requires polling places to have level access. Elections Canada has also established additional mandatory accessibility criteria based on human rights principles. See Election Canada's Accessibility Policy and Service Offering for more details on Elections Canada's approach to accessibility and efforts to remove obstacles electors may encounter.

Proximity – Whenever possible, electors should be assigned to vote in a polling place that is within reasonable distance from their ordinary residence.

Familiarity – Whenever possible, electors should be assigned to vote in a polling place they are likely to recognize by virtue of it having been used for another service to the general public or in previous municipal, provincial, territorial, or federal elections.

Suitability – A suitable polling place balances the three key principles of accessibility, proximity and familiarity, in addition to a number of operational requirements related to technology, utility services, capacity, and security.

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6. Operational constraints

ROs must assess and select polling places in a short time frame, negotiate short-term leases, and seek a variety of operational approvals from the CEO, in addition to their other duties.

In this context, the ROs' knowledge of their EDs is crucial in determining which facilities could be used as a polling place. ROs are expected to have knowledge of the geography, transportation routes, places of gathering, demographic characteristics and neighbourhoods that make up their ED. These attributes vary greatly across the country; as such, ROs have to manage different sets of circumstances when considering suitable polling places.

ROs must comply with the Canada Elections Act and human rights principles while searching for facilities that satisfy the key principles of accessibility, proximity, familiarity, and suitability, to offer convenient and barrier-free voting services to electors and political entities.

However, the limited availability of suitable polling places may require ROs to lease suboptimal facilities or ones that have never been used in past electoral events. In cases where the suboptimal facilities do not meet established accessibility criteria, the RO must fill and submit a Request to Use a Site Without Level Access to seek CEO authorization prior to committing to a lease.

Given the short time frames to confirm the availability of polling places, ROs are required to continually monitor the availability of facilities in their ED prior to election periods.

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7. Policy application

ROs are required to apply the key principles of accessibility, proximity, familiarity and suitability when selecting polling places.

7.1 Returning officer's office

Electors may choose to register and vote by special ballot at any RO's office across the country after the issue of the writ, until before 6:00 p.m. the sixth day before polling day. When selecting the facility, ROs must apply the same key principles.

Accessibility – The Canada Elections Act, subsection 60(1) requires RO offices to have level access. In addition, Elections Canada requires that the mandatory accessibility criteria of the Polling Place Suitability Checklist be respected. Visitors and workers should have barrier-free access to this facility and the services being provided under the Canada Elections Act.

Proximity – The RO's office must be located within the ED's boundaries and should be easily reachable by the majority of electors. Ideal locations are in an area where the majority of electors reside, along major traffic arteries, and easily accessible by public transportation.

Familiarity – By virtue of being strategically situated in the ED, the facility should be located in familiar areas and on commuting routes.

Other suitability considerations

When selecting an office, ROs should consider the security features of the building, the technological and utility services capacity (i.e., outlets, connectivity), and whether there is sufficient space for election materials, office staff and the various activities that will be conducted in the office.

7.2 Additional assistant returning officer offices

AARO offices serve a particular geographic area, typically in large or rural electoral districts where a population resides far from the RO's office. Accordingly, not all electoral districts require an AARO office.

The key principles of accessibility, proximity, familiarity and suitability that apply to RO offices also apply to AARO offices.

7.3 Ordinary and advance polling places

Electors may vote on polling day and on advance polling days at the polling places they are assigned to by ROs and that are indicated on their Voter Information Card.

Accessibility – Polling stations must be at premises with level access, pursuant to subsection 121(1) of the Canada Elections Act. In addition, polling places must be barrier-free and, to this end, comply with all mandatory accessibility criteria set out in the Polling Place Suitability Checklist. If a polling place presents accessibility challenges, the RO must make every effort to mitigate them or seek an alternate polling place. Only if the RO is unable to mitigate accessibility challenges and is unable to secure an alternate facility should he submit a written justification and seek CEO approval to use a polling place that is not barrier-free.

Proximity – In collaboration with Elections Canada headquarters, ROs seek to optimize geographic proximity between electors and polling places. They define voting service areas while taking into account local geography (barriers such as bridges, highways, waterways, railways, etc.), as well as the facilities' capacity. ROs must also consider transportation networks when assessing the proximity of polling places. If a polling place is located on a main traffic artery, or is accessible via public transportation, it may be more convenient to travel to despite not being the closest one.

Electors can expect to be assigned to a polling place that is within a reasonable distance from their place of ordinary residence. What is considered a reasonable distance may differ for advance polling places and ordinary polling places. In the case of ordinary polling places, the reasonable distance may be somewhat similar to that of a neighborhood public service, such as a primary school. In the case of advance polling places, they should be theoretically no further than local public government services at the municipal, provincial or federal level. Notionally, they service an area similar to that of a larger public service, such as a high school.

In remote regions, however, this may not always be feasible, at least in the case of advance polling places, since they service a larger area. Because they service a larger area, electors are likely to travel a longer distance for advance voting in these regions.

The value of proximity may not be the same for each elector, or by electors in different EDs. Electors who live in rural areas are likely to be more accustomed to driving longer distances than electors residing in urban areas.

Familiarity – Whenever possible, ROs should locate polling stations in a school or other suitable public building and they should try to use facilities used in previous elections. Like proximity, what is familiar differs from one elector to another. Generally, a polling place will be familiar if it is a common gathering place known to electors in a particular service area.

Other suitability considerations

Practical considerations that should be taken in to account when selecting polling places include: site capacity, utility services, technology, and other operational requirements. Facilities intended to be used for advance polling need to be secured for the full advance polling period.

7.4 Mobile polls

Accessibility, proximity and familiarity principles are de facto adhered to since the polling stations are brought directly to residents of institutions served by the mobile poll. With respect to suitability, however, the RO should consider, among other things:

  • Contacting the administrators of the institutions to determine the most appropriate time and manner to conduct the mobile poll.
  • Setting up mobile polls at institutions located in a reasonable distance of each other to allow election officers sufficient time to travel between them.
  • Not setting up a mobile poll in an institution where regular polling stations are installed, to avoid confusion.

7.5 AARO–External service points

Electors are not assigned to external service points (ESPs) like for advance or ordinary voting. Rather, ESPs target specific groups of electors who are known to face barriers to voting, such as but not limited to, students in post-secondary institutions residing outside of their home ED. ESPs are AARO offices open for a specific number of days during the writ period in a designated place that reaches the target electors.

Accessibility – These additional places must have level access, pursuant to the Canada Elections Act, and must comply with Elections Canada's mandatory accessibility criteria. For large institutions, it is not necessary for the entire premises to be accessible, but the room where ESP services are provided must be.

Proximity and familiarity – ESP offices are established to specifically address proximity and familiarity issues among specific groups of electors. They should be set up in a known location in the targeted institution.

Other suitability considerations

Places where ESPs are established may continue providing their regular services (i.e., education services) while voting is taking place. Therefore, consideration must be given to ensure functional requirements are met (i.e., security, utility services and technological requirements) and that the voting process is not compromised.

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8. Expected results

  • ROs select polling places in accordance with the Canada Elections Act, human rights principles, the Policy, and any additional instructions provided by the CEO.
  • Electors and political entities have barrier-free access to electoral services provided by Elections Canada.
  • Electors, political entities and the general public are informed about the criteria ROs use to select polling places.