Canada’s electoral process is national; the same basic rules are in force from coast to coast. The first few federal elections were held under disparate provincial laws, but in 1885 the first national election provisions were enacted, laying the foundations for the present system.

Canada’s constitution requires that elections be held at least every five years, but the convention is that elections be held every four years. In 2007, Parliament passed a law that sets a fixed election date. Under this law, the federal election is held on the third Monday in October in the fourth year following the last election. There are, however, exceptions to this, particularly in minority government situations and during wartime. In situations where a Member of Parliament (MP) vacates a seat between elections, a by-election is called to hold an election in that single seat. (See also Electoral Systems.)

Administration

Elections Canada is the independent and non-partisan agency that is responsible for administering federal elections. One of its duties is to keep the electoral system under continual review, with improvements constantly in mind. Elections Canada is headed by the Chief Electoral Officer.

Who Can Vote in Canada?

The right to vote, or the franchise, is widely distributed in Canada. With very few exceptions, all Canadian citizens over 18 can vote. This was not always the case — over time, the right to vote has become more universal, expanded sometimes by Parliament in response to social pressures and at other times by courts interpreting the right to vote as it is expressed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Since 1997, Canada has used a National Register of Electors; voters must be registered in order to cast a ballot. (See also Right to Vote.)

Canadian Electoral System

Canada follows what is called a single-member plurality electoral system. Under this system, Canada is divided into 338 constituencies, or “ridings,” each of which elects a single Member of Parliament (MP). Voters in each constituency thus choose from among the candidates who want to represent that constituency in the House of Commons. The candidate who receives a plurality of the vote — more votes than any other candidate, but not necessarily a majority of the vote — wins the election in that constituency and the right to serve as its MP. This process is often referred to as “first past the post.” Thus, voters choose an MP to represent their constituency and do not directly vote for the party or leader they want to see forming government. The party leader with the support of a majority of MPs can become prime minister. If a majority of the MPs come from one party (at least 170 seats out of 338), that party leader becomes the Prime Minister.

When no party has a majority of the seats, the formation of government is more complicated, usually leading to a minority government. The other option in this scenario is the formation of a coalition government, which is rare in Canada.

The creation of majority governments is one of the features of the single-member plurality system; a party that does not have the support of a majority of Canadians can still win the majority of the seats in the House of Commons and form a government. This same feature is viewed by those who would like to reform the electoral system as evidence that the system distorts the electoral preferences of Canadians (see Electoral Reform). Smaller parties usually receive far fewer seats than their share of the vote would suggest they deserve. In fact, a party can win fewer votes than another party, but still win a majority of the seats, as happened in the election of 1896.

One of the effects of the single-member plurality system is to introduce a significant regional dimension to electoral results (see Regionalism). Small parties with regionally concentrated support will do better than small parties whose support is spread across the country. For example, in 1997 the Bloc Québécois (BQ) and the New Democratic Party (NDP) both won 11 per cent of the vote, but the BQ won 44 seats compared with the NDP’s 21 seats because the BQ vote was concentrated in Québec, while the NDP won votes in constituencies across Canada that did not translate into seats.

Similarly, the impressions of the larger political parties can be shaped by the distribution of seats (see Redistribution of Federal Electoral Districts). In 2011, for example, the NDP could be seen as a “Québec party” as over half of its MPs came from that province; however, less than half (42.9 per cent) of the NDP’s total vote came in Québec. Conversely, because the Conservatives won only 5 of Québec’s 75 seats in that election, they appeared to have little support in Québec, but one-sixth of the province’s voters supported them. (See also Electoral Systems.)

Party System in Canada

Though Canadian elections select individual Members of Parliament (MPs), they rely heavily on political parties. Political parties nominate candidates; plan and finance campaigns; select the issues over which each election is fought; and, provide the leader who, each party hopes, will become prime minister or at least leader of the Opposition (see also Leadership Convention). While it is not impossible for independent candidates to get elected to Parliament, it is unusual. Because of the importance of political parties to the electoral process, they are increasingly subject to state regulation, even though they are private entities. This is particularly true of parties’ and candidates’ financial activities, but the limits on both parties and candidates are generous (see Party Financing). The Canada Elections Act, which governs the financing and running of elections, is administered by the Chief Electoral Officer. (See also Party System.)

Electoral Behaviour in Canada

Voter Turnout in Canada

Ultimately, the election result is determined by the votes of individual voters, that is, where they place the “X” on the ballot. First, however, citizens must show up at the polls to cast a ballot. In Canada, voter turnout — the proportion of Canadians who cast a ballot — has declined from the traditional rate of about 70 to 75 per cent of voters to around 60 per cent. There is no simple explanation for the decline, but a significant factor has been the declining rates of voting among younger generations of voters. Younger voters display lower levels of interest in politics and are less likely to see voting as a duty than their older counterparts. Research also suggests that three other causes for low turnout among younger voters exist: they identify less with political parties; feel less guilt about not voting; and, hold less confidence in Elections Canada.

Factors Influencing Voter Behaviour

Voters’ decisions about whom to vote for are shaped by a variety of factors, both long-term and short-term. Long-term factors include the social groups to which voters belong, such as religious, ethnic, class, regional and gender groups. Historically, for example, the Liberal Party benefited from the support of Catholic voters and visible minorities, support bases that have recently diminished. Similarly, voters are more likely to support political parties whose ideologies are similar to their own. Finally, some voters identify closely with a particular political party and are likely to vote out of traditional loyalties to that party.

Increasingly, however, short-term factors shape voter choice. The state of the economy can influence voters, with voters more likely to vote for a governing party when they perceive the economy to be growing and unemployment to be low or decreasing. During election campaigns, much of the attention is focused on the party leaders, and with good reason, as voters are more likely to vote for leaders they see as likable and competent. Some voters also vote strategically. In order to prevent a particular party’s candidate from winning, a voter might vote for their otherwise second choice. For example, a Liberal supporter who disliked the Conservative Party might choose to vote for the NDP if he or she thought that they had a better chance of defeating the Conservatives. (See also Electoral Behaviour.)

Canadian Electoral Issues

The final short-term factor affecting voter choice is issues, which are often the focus of political campaigns. Some issues are ones over which the parties take different positions, such as the 1988 election, where the Conservatives supported the Canada–US Free Trade Agreement, while the Liberals and NDP opposed it. Other issues are ones on which the parties hold the same basic position. In such instances, the parties campaign over which party is best positioned to manage that issue. For example, all of the major parties support economic growth; therefore, debates over the economy are largely over which party will do the best job to facilitate growth.

The issues of greatest importance to Canadians can change from election to election, and even the position of parties can change over time. For example, in 1911, the governing Liberals favoured a comprehensive reciprocal trade agreement with the United States — the Conservatives opposed it and won. Those positions were reversed in 1988.

During election campaigns, parties try to focus voters’ attentions on the issues where they are generally seen as most competent. It is this struggle to shape the criteria by which voters evaluate parties and leaders that defines elections.

Political Campaigns in Canada

Campaigns take place at the national and local levels. The national campaign is dominated by political parties and their leaders. The national campaign usually focuses on the leader tour, in which party leaders travel around the country, typically making promises or policy announcements appropriate to the location they are visiting. In conjunction with this, national parties also run elaborate advertising campaigns, often emphasizing the leaders' image. There is a significant regional element to the national campaign, and parties target their efforts where they can make the most difference: in constituencies where there is a close contest. There is little point expending campaign resources where the party is well ahead or hopelessly behind. All of this requires extensive research through polling and other tools to identify the best deployment of party resources (see Party Financing).

The local campaign still relies on canvassing — that is, going door to door to contact individual voters. Increasingly, those efforts are contributing to the national campaign by collecting voter information to share with the national campaign. Local candidates have to adhere to party policy, but might emphasize or downplay certain elements of the platform. (See also Political Campaign.)

Regional Diversity

Any party hoping to find electoral success in Canada has to have a broad appeal, and the result is that the parties rarely differ deeply on fundamental issues. All parties that achieve success in elections contain individuals of enormously varied opinions, but during elections the parties generally present a united front. This discourages the expression of the extremes of opinion within the party during a campaign. All parties are committed, in varying degrees, to a broad range of health and welfare policies, to immigration and to a mixture of public and private enterprise.

However, there is a strong regional element to Canadian elections. Political parties with concentrated regional support fare much better than parties with support spread across the country. This has made Canada’s electoral process particularly fertile ground for parties of regional protest. This was seen most starkly in the 1993 election, which resulted in a serious challenge to the history of Canadian elections up to that point. Although the Liberal Party, which still held to traditional federalist policies, swept to a majority government, two protest parties, the Bloc Québécois in Québec and the Reform Party of Canada in the West, returned large numbers of representatives with strictly regional agendas. In the process, the Conservative coalition of Westerners and Québécois disintegrated, and the federalist NDP was reduced to its lowest numbers. The BQ promised to work for a sovereign Québec and the Reform Party vowed a "renewed federalism," which to some was seen as an attempt to exclude Québec. That election introduced a series of elections (1993–2011) in which four or five parties won seats in the House of Commons. Three minority governments resulted in that time.

The formation of the Conservative Party of Canada out of the Canadian Alliance (the successor to the Reform party) and the Progressive Conservatives in 2004 as well as the collapse of BQ support in 2011 ended this heavily regionalized period of Canadian politics. Given the structure of the electoral system, where political parties earn votes is almost as important as how many they earn. Because of this, regional considerations will never completely disappear from Canadian elections. (See also Regionalism.)

Electoral Reform in Canada

Concerns over the exacerbation of regional conflict in Canada as well as other issues around representation have led to calls for electoral reform in Canada. Some reform advocates call for a move to a more proportional electoral system, where the proportion of seats a party wins corresponds much more closely to the proportion of votes it receives. Others have advocated for systems that would use a preferential ballot to ensure that every candidate elected has the support of a majority of the voters in the constituency. These debates at the national level have typically not gained much momentum, partly because the parties in power benefit from the current system and have less incentive to change it.

Provinces have been more adventurous in electoral reform, both in the past (Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia all used systems other than plurality voting at certain points), and in recent consideration of alternatives to the plurality system. There was significant discussion of reform at the provincial level in British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island in the 2000s (each of those provinces held a referendum on the matter), but no changes resulted.

The move to implement some form of electoral reform is politically divisive. Since reform stands to affect the number of seats each party wins in an election, the move to one system or another can arguably benefit one or more parties above others.

During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberal, NDP and Green Party each included electoral reform in its platform. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was the most vocal, announcing that the party was “committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first past the post.” The Conservative Party supported a referendum on the matter.

After the Liberals won a majority, they established the all-party Special Committee on Electoral Reform on 7 June 2016. The committee’s report, tabled that December, recommended that the government consider a national referendum on the question of electoral reform. Although the report suggested that any new system adopted should be one of proportional representation, it did not recommend a specific alternative.

The government commissioned an online survey called MyDemocracy.ca, which was circulated in December 2016. Though its aim was to consult and engage Canadians on the subject of electoral reform, its results were inconclusive. Critics pointed out that the survey did not clearly discuss electoral reform or specific electoral systems and instead focused attention on democratic values.

On 1 February 2017, the Liberal government dropped electoral reform from its official mandate.

Legal experts point out that federal electoral reform may require constitutional amendment, a historically difficult process (see Constitutional History).

(See also Electoral Reform.)

Significance

Elections are significant events in democracies, and Canada is no exception. Because of their importance, elections are hotly contested by political parties and candidates and heavily regulated by the state. These regulations in turn shape how parties, candidates and voters behave.