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Canadian Election Laws & Policies

Elections are complex events, but a good introduction to Canada's electoral process is provided by Elections Canada. As well, the main policies relating to federal elections can be found in the 2006 Elections Media Guide prepared by Elections Canada for journalists covering the election. The  Election Handbook for Candidates and Registered Party Handbook also offer detailed information about how elections must be conducted in practice.

While we usually focus on the actual campaign period and election day, important events can happen in validating results and holding recounts. Sometimes results are so close that the candidate who appeared to win when the votes were counted on election night actually ends up losing when each ballot paper undergoes a much closer scrutiny in an official recount.

Elections Canada also provides a number of plain English overviews of the laws and policies governing the conduct of federal elections. The most important law is the Canada Elections Act and associated regulations. Important changes to the Elections Act came into effect on January 1, 2004 and are summarized in this report by the Library of Parliament. The Parliament of Canada's Library also provides an interesting research document on Electoral Rights: Charter of Rights and Freedoms
 

The Franchise

The right to vote has expanded enormously since the first election held after Confederation. When the first Canadian election was held in 1867, only 11% of the total population was qualified to vote - almost exclusively white males with property.  For the 2000 election, roughly 74% - practically all citizens 18 years of age or older - were eligible to vote. (Source: Elections Canada). Only in 1960 were the last of the major restrictions on the franchise lifted, when aboriginals with "registered Indian status" were permitted to vote in federal elections.  However, restrictions still apply to prison inmates serving sentences of more than 2 years and are the subject of on-going litigation.

Read about the slow path to Canada's first election with universal adult suffrage in 1963. Visit the Museum of Civilization's History of the Vote for more about the evolution of the electoral franchise in Canada.

In May 2004, the Alberta Court of Appeal rejected two teens' right to vote (CBC News).

Think you know about the election history? Take Elections Canada's Quiz and see how much you really do know about the history of voting in Canada.
 

Election Broadcasting

The media play a crucial role in election campaigns and they are covered by Broadcasters Guidelines issued by the Broadcasting Arbitrator under the Canada Elections Act, as well as CRTC policies and guidelines issued for the 2011 election. Each broadcaster must make available up to 390 minutes for political parties to purchase for advertising during the 2011 election campaign. The following table shows the allocated broadcast minutes available for purchase to the various registered parties during the 2000 to 2011 elections.
 

Election Broadcast Time Allocations (Minutes)

Party 2011 2008 2006
2004

2000

  Absolutely Absurd Party
-
-
-
6.0
-
  Animal Alliance Environmental Voters
7.5
8.0
6.0
-
-
  Bloc Québécois
36.5
37.5
44.5
39.0
40.5
  Canada Action Party
8.0
9.0
12.5
16.0
14.5
  Canadian Alliance 
-
-
-
-
59.5
  Christian Heritage Party
9.3
9.5
13.0
6.0
14.5
  Communist Party
8.3
8.5
12.0
15.5
6.0
  Conservative Party 
103.0
95.5
85.0
86.5
-
  First People's National Party
7.3
8.0
6.0
-
-
  Green Party
23.3
22.5
25.0
18.5
15.5
  Liberal Party
69.3
82.5
105.0
120.0
113.0
  Libertarian Party
8.3
8.0
11.0
-
-
  Marijuana Party
7.3
9.0
13.5
16.5
6.0
  Marxist-Leninist Party
9.3
10.0
13.5
16.0
14.5
  National Alternative Party
-
-
-
6.0
-
  Natural Law Party
-
-
-
-
17.0
  Rhino (formerly NeoRhino)
7.5
8.0
-
-
-
  New Democratic Party
48.0
45.0
43.5
37.0
40.5
  Newfoundland & Labrador First
-
6.0
-
-
-
  Ontario Party of Canada
-
-
-
6.0
-
  People's Political Power Party
7.5
6.0
-
-
-
  Pirate Party
6.5
- - - -
  Progressive Canadian Party
7.5
9.0
11.5
-
-
  Progressive Conservative Party
-
-
-
-
48.0
  United Party
6.5
- - - -
  Western Block Party
7.5
8.0
6.0
-
-
  Work Less Party
-
6.0
-
-
-
    Total Broadcast Minutes
390.0
396.0
408.0
389.0
389.5

 Source: Elections Canada - 2008; 2006; 2004; 2000

 

A continuing controversy over the years has been which party leaders should be included in the televised leaders' debates. Several unsuccessful court battles have been fought by leaders of small parties to be included (See below). The CRTC decided in 1995 that not all leaders need to be included in the debates, so long as broadcasters took "reasonable steps" to convey the views of all parties during the election period. The courts have ruled that the broadcasters are not performing a government function in broadcasting the debates and therefore are not bound by the Charter of Rights

As technology changes, there are new issues that emerge about the conduct and regulation of elections. You can read an experts' report prepared for Elections Canada on Technology and the Voting Process (pdf format) that details a range of problems as well as opportunities.
 

Election Financing

One of the most important aspects of managing elections lies in regulating the amount of money that candidates and parties may spend.  Unlike the United States, which limits the amounts which individuals and groups can contribute to election campaigns, the historical Canadian approach was to limit the amounts that candidates and parties can spend. However, Canadian federal election financing rules have changed considerably since 2004. New rules were brought in at the start of 2004 to limit any individual from contributing more than $5,000 in any calendar year to a party and its candidates. Corporations and trade unions were capped at $1,000 per calendar year. The limits on individual donations were subject to an inflation adjustment which stood at $5,200 for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2006; corporate and union donations remained fixed at $1,000.However, Parliament passed new limits on political donations that came into effect on 2007. Since then only individuals can make donations to political parties and their candidates; corporations and trade unions now can no longer dondate money directly to political parties or candidates. Individuals are currently limited to donating no more than $1,100 in total per year to any of the political parties, ridings associations, and individual candidates.

You can look up the spending limits registered political parties are allowed to spend in each of the 308 ridings during the 2011 election; note that this was in addition to the amount that the individual candidates can spend. The specific amounts vary from riding to riding because they were based on the number of registerd voters in a constituency. For an historical perspective, you can compare the 2008, 2006 and 2004 election limits with the limits for each riding in 2000. (pdf)

The total amount a registered party can spend is based on the number of ridings they contest and the number of electors in those ridings. You can compare the limits for party spending in each riding in the 2008, 2006 and 2004 elections. The total election expenses limits for the parties are available for the 2006 and 2004 general elections

 

The expense limits for the political parties in the 2011 elections are as follows:

Name of Party Final Election Expenses Limit
Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party of Canada
$467,969.04
Bloc Québécois
$5,373,817.88
Canadian Action Party
$840,225.51
Christian Heritage Party of Canada
$3,202,184.33
Communist Party of Canada
$1,358,384.14
Conservative Party of Canada
$20,955,088.91
First Peoples National Party of Canada
$62,702.06
Green Party of Canada
$20,764,344.60
Liberal Party of Canada
$21,025,793.23
Libertarian Party of Canada
$1,743,667.01
Marijuana Party
$339,676.42
Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada
$5,162,704.67
New Democratic Party
$21,025,793.23
Pirate Party of Canada
$757,193.21
Progressive Canadian Party
$765,502.06
Rhinoceros Party
$982,437.09
United Party of Canada
$241,406.53
Western Block Party
$333,954.75

Source: Elections Canada

The expense limits for the political parties in the 2008 elections were as follows:

Name of Party Final Election Expenses Limit
Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party $272,020.62
Bloc Québécois $5,066,811.35
Canadian Action Party $1,312,843.11
Christian Heritage Party of Canada $3,789,711.98
Communist Party of Canada $1,599,036.86
Conservative Party of Canada $19,999,230.62
First Peoples National Party of Canada $291,658.89
Green Party of Canada $19,751,412.68
Liberal Party of Canada $20,014,302.76
Libertarian Party of Canada $1,880,168.34
Marijuana Party $537,560.73
Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada $4,109,588.81
neorhino.ca $481,352.40
New Democratic Party $20,063,430.10
Newfoundland and Labrador First Party $169,243.46
People's Political Power Party of Canada $91,748.49
Progressive Canadian Party $706,935.92
Western Block Party $76,810.64
Work Less Party $64,845.31

Source: Elections Canada

The expense limits for the political parties in the 2006 elections were as follows:

Name of Party Election Expenses Limit
Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party $68,154.97
Bloc Québécois $4,676,676.52
Canadian Action Party $2,150,020.88
Christian Heritage Party of Canada $2,617,633.05
Communist Party of Canada $1,234,417.80
Conservative Party of Canada $18,278,278.64
First Peoples National Party of Canada $285,326.57
Green Party of Canada $18,278,278.64
Liberal Party of Canada $18,278,278.64
Libertarian Party of Canada $659,531.77
Marijuana Party $1,353,566.56
Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada $4,494,786.75
New Democratic Party $18,278,278.64
Progressive Canadian Party  $1,555,632.40
Western Block Party $273,026.95

Source: Elections Canada

The expense limits for the political parties in the 2004 elections were as follows:

Bloc Québécois $ 4,591,747.38
Canadian Action Party 2,719,297.09
Christian Heritage Party 3,463,773.28
Communist Party of Canada 1,965,334.14
Conservative Party of Canada 17,593,925.32
Green Party of Canada 17,593,925.32
Liberal Party of Canada 17,593,925.32
Libertarian Party of Canada 492,029.12
Marijuana Party 4,212,973.14
Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada 4,666,709.14
New Democratic Party 17,593,925.32
Progressive Canadian Party 988,939.56

 

The reports of money raised and spent by political parties and candidates in the 1997 elections and subsequent years are available in a searchable, on-line database.  The political parties' financial reports, including lists of donors are available for 1997 onwards.

Political Parties must register with Elections Canada in order to issue tax receipts for donations, and in order to qualify for government funds which are paid to parties after an election. Major changes to election financing came into effect in 2004 and provide healthy reimbursements to both political parties and candidates.  If a party has received more than 2% of the national vote or 5% in the ridings it contested, then it may qualify for a payment equal to 60% of its election expenses - up from 22.5% in the 2000 election; the threshold for this reimbursement is currently being challenged in court by a number of the smaller parties registered in the 2004 election. If a candidate wins at least 10% of the votes in his or her riding, they are also eligible for up to a reimbursement of up to 60% of their expenses. Indeed new terms that were approved just before the 2004 election allow a party with as few as 250 members to field only one or two candidates and still qualify for reimbursements.

With the 2008 election confirmed before it was officially called, some substantial campaigning began a few days ahead of the official start of the campaign. In a CBC News report, Elections Canada said that there were no rules against early campaigning, but that the costs of such activities must be reported as election expenses. 
 

2000 & 1997 Election Expenses

 

Party
Average Expenses by
Candidates
Expenses By National Party
2000 1997 2000 1997
Bloc Québécois
$ 55,532
$ 50,016
      1,968,693
$ 1,629,497
Canada Action
...4,285
....2,833
         392,108
.....490,441
Canadian Alliance

.       32,044

--

      9,669,648

--

Christian Heritage
--
....2,922

--

.......75,229
Green Party
....2,382
.......561
          17,747
.......16,090
Liberal Party
..48,637
..44,722
    12,525,174
.11,247,141
Marxist-Leninist
.......94
.......159
            2,088
............375
Natural Law
......62
.........54
          38,304
.....292,253
NDP
..13,151
..17,537
      6,334,585
..5,976,724
Conservatives
..15,314
..29,240
      3,983,301
10,288,333
Reform
--
..29,624

--

..4,921,733

Source: Elections Canada - Candidates: 2000, 1997; Parties: 2000, 1997

Other changes that came into effect in 2004 banned donations to political parties from corporations and trade unions, in an effect to limit the overt influence on political parties by outside organizations.

 

Readjustment of Electoral Boundaries

Each decade an independent Electoral Boundaries Commissions are set up to review the distribution of seats in the House of Commons to ensure that the number and size of each province's constituencies meets the legal requirements.  The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled, in the Electoral Boundaries Reference case, that Canadians should have a relatively equal voting power. As a result, the number of voters per constituency should not normally vary more than + or - 25% from the average. From time- to time, new ridings are added, and at others the seats are redistributed among the provinces. 

The methods used to allocate seats among the provinces and to draw boundaries has changed considerably over the years. The last readjustment of electoral boundaries was done in time to come into effect for the 1997 general elections.  Prior to 1985, adjustments to federal boundaries were achieved by amending the British North America Act, 1867; since 1985, however, the changes are incorporated into ordinary law. Section 51(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867 and Electoral Boundaries Adjustment Act governs the process currently used.
 
 

Reporting of Election Results

Since Canada stretches over five times zones, a political and administrative issue has arisen over when polls should close across the country and whether the results of areas that are closed can be broadcast while other areas of the country are still voting.

An amendment to the Canada elections Act in 2000 introduced a new provision to prohibit people in one part of the country from finding out about the results of the elections in other parts of Canada prior to the closing of the polls.  Section 329 reads: "No person shall transmit the result or purported result of the vote in an electoral district to the public in another electoral district before the close of all the polling stations in that other district."

A BC resident, Paul Bryan, then declared during the 2000 elections that he would put current election results on the Internet as early as possible, and the he intends to fight any charges as infringements of his freedom of expression. Bryan was later charged for publishing the elections results while polls still remained open. He was initially convicted but the BC Supreme Court acquitted him on appeal.  The BC Appeal Court overturned this decision in May 2005. However, the Supreme Court of Canada reversed this decision by a 5-4 split in 2007, ensuring that the ban on election-day results will remain in place for future elections.

 

Quarterly Allowances

The Canada Elections Act stipulates that subsidies shall be paid to registered political parties based on the number of votes they received in the previous federal election. Section 435.01 set a threshold of votes received that parties had to meet before qualifying for the quarterly allowances. Parties had to receive either 2% of the national vote or 5% of the votes in each of the ridings they had contested. While, this threshold was challenged in court and was struck down in late 2006 by a judge on the Ontario Superior Court in Longley v Canada (Attorney General), the Ontario Court of Appeal later reversed this decision and upheld the threshold; the Supreme Court of Canada denied leave to appeal this decision.

 

Third Party Spending Restrictions

A controversial aspect of federal election laws is the limits placed on private individuals and groups who are not running in the election but who wish to advertise in support of or against specific candidates or parties.  Amendments made to the Elections Act in May 2000 placed a $3,000 limit on "third party" spending in each constituency and $150,000 for a national advertising campaign. These limits are to be re-indexed annually and stand at $3,666 and $183,300 respectively for the 2008 election period.  More details can be found in Elections Canada's FAQ on third party advertising, as well as their Election Handbook for Third Parties. Anyone who spends over $500 in election advertising has to register with Elections Canada. You can consult the list of those registered as Third Parties for the 2008 election.

There are two main justifications for the third-party limits.  The first is to protect the spending limits on political parties and candidates; otherwise, parallel campaigns could be conducted by groups allied to particular parties.  The other is to protect individual candidates from being targeted by expensive ad campaigns to which they could not respond because of both their own limited funds or the spending limits imposed on candidates.  For example, see "Business Group Raising $25,000 for Ad Campaign to Oust Tory MP Elsie Wayne" National Post, October 28, 2000. 

This law was challenged during the 2000 election, by Stephen Harper when he headed up the National Citizens Coalition, on the grounds that the law is an unconstitutional limit on the freedom of expression and of the voters' rights to be fully informed of all points of view. The Alberta Queen's Bench issued an injunction lifting the third party spending limits pending a full hearing, and the injunction was upheld by the Alberta Court of Appeal. However, the Supreme Court of Canada lifted the injunction on November 10, and the limits were in force during the rest of the campaign.

In May 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on another Harper case and decided that the existing spending limits were in fact constitutional. So, the 2004 general election will be conducted with the following indexed spending limits for third parties in place: $3,378 in an individual riding and $168,900 nationally.

British Columbia has tried to regulate third party spending. A similar law was struck down in British Columbia in early 2000, in the Pacific Press case, but the provincial government did not appeal the decision. In 2008, however, the BC legislature enacted new laws that re-instated third-party spending caps the apply for 60 days prior to the election period as well as during the campaign period itself. A coalition of trade unions have launched a campaign and court challenge to these limits.

In the 1997 Libman case dealing with the 1995 Quebec referendum, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that limits on third party spending were reasonable; but they struck down the specific limits in the Quebec case as being too low. 

Jennifer Smith and Herman Bakvis defended the limits on third party spending in their article, Changing Dynamics in Election Campaign Finance: Critical Issues in Canada and the United States.
 

Court Cases on Federal & Provincial Electoral Law  

Allocation of Broadcasting Time & Leadership Debates Participation

Disqualification for Membership in a Legislature

Electoral Boundaries

  • Reference Re: Provincial Electoral Boundaries (Sask.) (Supreme Court of Canada, June 6, 1991)
  • Société des Acadiens et Acadiennes du Nouveau-Brunswick v. Canada (injunction denied in New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench, April 29, 1997; action discontinued on May 7, 2002)

"In and Out" - Spreading cost of National Campaign to Constituency Budgets

Merger of Registered Political Parties

Opinion Poll Blackout

Political Rights of Civil Servants

Premature Transmission of Election Results

  • R. v. Bryan (Supreme Court of Canada, March 15, 2007)

Prisoner Voting

Quarterly Allowance Paid to Political Parties

"Registered Political Parties" – Definition

Reimbursement of Election Expenses

  • Barrette v. Canada (Attorney General) (Quebec Court of Appeal, March 18, 1994)
  • Mackay v. Manitoba (Supreme Court of Canada, September 14, 1989)

Signs – Placement of Electoral Signs on Public Property

  • Beaumier v. City of Brampton (Ontario Court of Justice, February 6, 1998); appeal dismissed by the Ontario Court of Appeal November 19, 1999

Televised Leaders' Debates - Exclusion of Small Party Leaders

"Third Parties" – Regulation of "Election Advertising" by Third Parties (i.e. groups that do not run candidates)

Uses of Political Contributions

 

I welcome any feedback and suggestions for fresh material to add to this site -

Andrew Heard
Political Science Department  --  Simon Fraser university