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Canada has an exemplary democratic system that has held firm for the Canadian people since its inception. But do you know how Canadian elections work? To get the answer, let’s begin with this guide.
1. Canadian Elections: The Workflow
1.1. Political Structure
The political structures of Canadian elections are modeled after that of the United Kingdom.
It is a constitutional monarchy comprised of the Senate, the House of Commons, and the Queen of Canada, officially represented by the Governor-General (or a lieutenant governor at the province level).
1.2. How Seats Are Filled and Who Becomes the Prime Minister?
The Senate has 105 seats, and the Governor-General chooses its members on the Prime Minister’s advice. The 338 seats in the House of Commons are filled by representatives chosen by the electorate in general or particular elections.
Almost always, the party with the most seats forms the government, and its leader becomes the Prime Minister.
1.3. Political System
Canada’s political system comprises a combination of unwritten customs, written Acts, and court rulings.
It outlines the authority and responsibilities of the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, each of which is in charge of overseeing its election processes. There are some things we have to keep in mind before getting into the nitty-gritty:
- The maximum interval between federal general elections was set at five years by the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982, except for periods of actual or anticipated war, invasion, or insurrection.
- According to the Canada Elections Act, a general election must also be conducted on the third Monday in October, four calendar years after the last general election. However, it also enables the earlier calling of an election.
- This can happen if the Governor-General follows the Prime Minister’s recommendation to dissolve Parliament.
- By convention, in Canadian elections, the party’s leader with the most elected representatives becomes the Government following a general election. The party’s leader will be proposed as prime minister by the governor-general. To continue in office, they must consistently be able to keep the House’s trust.
- The official Opposition is often the party with the second-highest number of elected representatives. The Leader of the Opposition is the party’s leader.
- The individuals chosen by the Prime Minister to lead key government ministries in the Cabinet are typically members of their party’s House of Commons.
- The Prime Minister can also nominate senators and other individuals from outside Parliament to the Cabinet; however, this is uncommon. The United Kingdom’s parliamentary system of Government serves as the foundation for the Canadian election system.
2. The Challenge of Canada’s Geography
Canada’s topography has influenced how the country’s electoral system has changed. Although small by global standards, our population is dispersed over a vast land scattered across six time zones.
In stark contrast, the smallest electoral district in Quebec, Papineau, has 108,977 people yet has around 9 square kilometers of land.
2.1. What Function Does Geography Serve in a Democracy?
- Election districts, sometimes called ridings, determine representation in the House of Commons.
- Independent commissions in Canadian elections have been tasked with changing electoral district boundaries since 1964 in response to demographic shifts noted in each 10-year census. The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act mandates the commissions (one for each province).
- The three-member electoral boundary commissions are typically presided over by a judge appointed by the province’s chief justice. The Speaker of the Commons appoints the two additional members. Since each territory has a single electoral district, Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut do not require commissions.
3. Electoral System in Canada
During Canadian elections, the commissions get technical, administrative, and financial support from Elections Canada to assist them in carrying out their duties.
Each commission makes its proposal public, holds hearings at which the public and lawmakers can offer their opinions, and then submits a report to the House of Commons.
The impartial organization in charge of overseeing all elections in Canada, including general elections, by-elections, and referendums, is called Elections Canada. The chief electoral officer is in charge of it.
The time needed to finish the redistribution procedure can be around two years. At the first general election, called at least seven months after the representation order is announced, the new boundaries and names are used.
The members of the Canadian Parliament are:
- The emperor (represented by the governor-general)
- An upper body (the Senate), whose members are chosen by the governor-general on the prime minister’s advice
- A lower chamber, the members of which are chosen by the people of Canada in federal general elections (the House of Commons).
4. Representativeness in Canadian Elections
Election districts, called constituencies or ridings, determine who is represented in the House of Commons. A mechanism outlined in the constitution determines the number of ridings, and each riding elects one representative to the House of Commons.
4.1. Candidates for Parliament Are Chosen in What Ways?
The term “single-member plurality” (sometimes known as “first-past-the-post“) refers to the election system in Canada. The candidate who receives the most votes in each electoral district wins a seat in the House of Commons and represents that district in Parliament.
A candidate may be chosen without obtaining an absolute majority or more than 50% of the electoral district votes.
An electoral district may have any number of candidates running for office. Still, each candidate may only compete in one riding, either on their own or as an agent of a recognized political party. Similarly, each party can only support one candidate per electoral district.
A registered political party’s name may appear next to a candidate’s on the ballot if that party has endorsed them. Candidates who don’t identify with a party can opt to have either “Independent” or no affiliation appear next to their name on the ballot. In general elections, only a few candidates have traditionally run unaffiliated.
According to the Canada Elections Act, a political party is an organization that has as one of its primary goals engaging in public affairs by endorsing one or more of its members as candidates and aiding in their election to the House of Commons.
Also, according to the Canadian Elections Act, Political parties that satisfy this criterion can register with the Chief Electoral Officer to achieve official status and qualify for some financial and other Act benefits.
4.2. Individual Plurality
The single-member plurality system in Canadian elections accurately describes Canada’s electoral system, occasionally called a “first-past-the-post” system.
The candidate who receives the most votes in a riding is elected to the House of Commons and serves as that riding’s representative in Parliament (MP).
The governor-general asks the party leader with the most seats to form a government, and that person becomes the prime minister. The Official Opposition is the party whose candidates garner the second-highest seats. That party receives more significant funding and prestige than the other opposition parties.
4.2.1. Voter Participation in Canadian Elections
Involuntary voting decreased significantly between 1962 (79%) and 2011 (61.4 percent). During that time, the Gallagher Index of disproportionality for federal elections in Canada ranged from 6.26 to 20.91, comparable to some of its counterparts, including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (presidential electoral college).
4.2.2. Election Period in Canada
In the past, the prime minister could practically request the governor-general to call an election at any time in Canadian elections. In contrast, section 4 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms required that it be called no later than five years following the return of the writs.
A law mandating set election dates in Canada every four years was passed in 2007 by the conservative-controlled legislature. The ability of the governor-general to dissolve Parliament at any moment, as was done in 2008 at the request of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is unaffected by this statute.
Traditionally, in Canadian elections, the prime minister will petition the governor-general to call an election if a government fails a confidence motion. When the prime minister requests it after losing a vote of confidence, the governor-general customarily calls an election.
Additionally, the governor-general has the right to call the head of the party they believe has the best chance of forming a government and ask them if they can do so.
5. Election Procedure
5.1. Step 1: Dissolving the Legislature
Dissolution is the procedure to halt parliamentary operations to be ready for an election. The governor-general is requested by the prime minister to dissolve the legislature.
The governor-general mandates the Chief Electoral Officer to issue the writs of election. (A writ is an official document instructing the electoral officials in each riding to call an election.)
5.2. Step 2: Candidate Nomination
To participate in an election, political parties must select candidates. Each party must select a candidate for each constituency after the election writs are released.
What are the fundamental prerequisites to running for office?
- You have to be a citizen of Canada.
- On election day, you must be at least 18 years old.
- A candidate who is ineligible to vote;
- A member of the provincial or territorial legislature;
- The head of the electoral process;
- A prisoner who is housed in a correctional facility.
- A nomination paper or online form must be submitted to Elections Canada.
5.3. Step 3: Campaigning
Candidates and parties want to persuade voters that they are the best party or person for the job throughout the campaign.
Candidates begin their campaigns as soon as the election writs are published. At least 36 and 50 days must be in the election or campaign period.
5.4. Step 4: Voting
Voting is a crucial civic obligation. You must be a citizen of Canada, at least 18 years old on election day, and registered to vote to cast your ballot in a federal election.
5.4.1. The Electoral Process:
- Everyone casts a secret ballot. They are entitled to make their own independent, unbiased choice of candidate.
- Voters are required to present identification and address verification.
- Elections Canada officials give a ballot to each voter.
- Behind a voting screen, the voter takes the ballot and puts an X next to the name of the candidate they want to support.
- The voter inserts their ballot into the voting machine.
5.5. Step 5: Parliament Reconvenes
Canadians find out who will lead their country after the votes are tabulated and the results are publicized.
The candidate who obtains the most votes in their riding is elected as that riding’s member of parliament (MP) and sits in the Commons as that riding’s representative.
6. Some Necessary Specifics in Canadian Elections
6.1. A list of Canadian Political Parties Is Made Available
During a Canadian election, an electoral district may have any number of candidates running for office. Still, each candidate may only run in one district, either on their own or as an agent of a political party.
Only one candidate from each party may be supported in a riding. Those who run for office without supporting a particular party may be considered independent or have no connection.
A collection of individuals who collectively:
- Create bylaws and a constitution.
- Choose a captain and other officers.
- Support the candidates running for the Commons.
A political party must register with the chief electoral officer to have the right to have its name appear on the ballot alongside the candidates it supports.
6.2. Ruling Party
In Canadian elections, the party with the most elected representatives typically takes power after an election. Shortly after the election, the governor-general summoned the head of this party and had them take the oath of office as Prime Minister of Canada.
The Official Opposition is the party’s name with the second-highest number of MPs. The House of Commons is where all elected candidates sit and vote on proposed bills that impact governmental policy. Independent commissions determine riding limits, taking into account the following:
- societal ties
- commercial ties
New commissions are established every ten years to update any current boundaries that require adjustment according to standards outlined in the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act.
Redrawing electoral boundaries is referred to as “redistribution,” and the outcomes are documented in a “representation order.” The number of ridings was established at 308 by the Representation Order 2003. The 338 ridings were established following the redistribution in 2012.
7. Voting Rights
Every citizen at least 18 years old has the right to vote in selecting their parliamentary representatives.
According to Canadian electoral law, the chief electoral officer must inform the public about the system and their rights within it and eliminate any barriers that would make voting challenging for some people.
7.1. Voter Rights in Canadian Elections
Elections Canada educates Canadians about their right to vote, registration, where and how to cast their ballots, and other election-related topics. Among its public information initiatives are
- news reports.
- Advertisements in publications, radio and television, pamphlets, and posters.
- A free telephone information line.
- A web page.
- Meetings with ethnic and community organizations.
Between elections, the organization publishes more background material for the public, maintains a hotline and website for inquiries, and collaborates with educators to urge young people to register to vote when they are eligible (18 years and older).
7.2. Accommodation for Voting
Elections Canada‘s role includes assisting in the removal of voting-related barriers. Voting in advance is an option for those unable to cast their ballots on election day.
If voters do not want to visit a polling place during an election, they can utilize the special ballot even if they are in their riding. In certain circumstances, voters with disabilities may cast their ballots at home in the presence of an election official.
Voters who reside in specific institutions, like nursing homes for the elderly or those with disabilities, can cast their ballots at a mobile polling location.
Canadian Elections‘ officials at polling places speak both official languages (English and French) when possible. A deputy returning officer may also name and swear in an interpreter to facilitate communication with a voter.
Every vote is cast on the same heavy paper ballot placed within a regular cardboard box provided by Elections Canada. The ballot and box were designed so only the voter knew their decision. Each member is given an equal right to vote and select their candidate. This makes the Canadian elections the best!