As citizens of one of the planet’s oldest functioning democracies, Canadians have long practised the ancient art of popular election to pick their rulers. Regular elections are of course closely tied to the proper functioning of the Canadian Parliamentary System, but have also evolved into a cultural spectacle all their own, and today serve as one of the most high-profile (and entertaining) events in Canadian political life.
Types of Elections
Canadians government is divided into three levels: federal, provincial, and local, and Canadians elect the people who run all three. A federal election, sometimes known as a Canadian general election, is an election to pick members of the House of Commons, a provincial election picks people to sit in the provincial parliament, and a municipal election chooses city-rank officials like the mayor, city council and school board. A by-election refers to a small, emergency election held sometime outside a regular one. All three levels of Canadian government have the power to call by-elections to fill vacancies after some politician unexpectedly leaves his office prematurely, usually by dying.
Canada is in a bit of a weird situation right now regarding when exactly elections are held. Historically, only municipal elections were set on fixed dates, while provincial and federal elections could happen at any time. Under the terms of the Canadian Constitution, prime ministers and provincial premiers have a right to call elections whenever they please, so long as it occurs within at least five years of the last one. In theory, this means it’s possible to have to have two federal or provincial elections within a single year if the PM so decides, and this has actually happened a few times in Canadian history. As you might imagine, this system was easily corrupted by politicians always calling elections when their poll numbers were highest, which led to the rise of the fixed election date movement in the early 2000s. Today, eight of 10 provinces now have set election dates, and the federal government passed a fixed election date act of its own in 2007. However, these laws are all arguably unconstitutional and many prime ministers have happily ignored them when convenient. At best, it may be most accurate to say that Canadian elections are held on fixed dates — except when they’re not.
For the purposes of this chapter, we will mostly focus on federal elections, though much of what is discussed will be equally applicable to provincial elections, which simply operate on a smaller scale. Provincial premiers campaign for office just like the federal prime minister, and provincial legislatures are dissolved and elected just like the House of Commons. Local elections lack any sort of parliamentary pretence, however, and tend to be fairly simple, straightforward and low-profile exercises, lacking much of the glitz and glamour of the others (with pitiful turnout to match).
How do Canadian Elections Work?
Canadian elections are formally announced by the governor general, who dissolves the sitting parliament upon the prime minister’s request, making it necessary to elect a new one. Every single member of the House of Commons is thus forced to campaign for re-election simultaneously in a general election, essentially merging 308 local elections into one enormous national one. The official campaign period usually lasts about a month, but these days there’s usually a long period of pre-campaigning too, especially if the election date has been set in advance.
Federal campaigns operate at two levels: local and national. At the national level, the media tends to focus on the leaders of the main federal political parties, who campaign as candidates for the office of prime minister. As discussed in more detail in the parties chapter, political parties in Canada are organized in a very hierarchical, top-down fashion, meaning that in any federal election, the most important elements of a party’s campaign platform — or list of promises to voters — will be crafted by the leader’s office and broadcast across the country via national media such as TV, radio and the Internet. Party leaders will tour the country, making high-profile photo op visits in electorally important cities and towns, and most news coverage will focus on what they say and do. Locally, the men and women running for seats in the House will campaign exclusively in their own electoral districts, handing out flyers, knocking on doors and participating in local candidates’ debates. Much of what they promise and promote will be closely tied to the leader’s national campaign, since it’s only by electing enough local MPs that voters are able to install a party leader as PM.
While Canadian election campaigns are generally expensive, big-budget affairs featuring a large assortment of gimmicks like customized balloons, glossy brochures and big rented buses with the leader’s face plastered on the side, spending limits prevent things from getting too out of hand. Under the terms of the Canada Elections Act, the amount of money a political party and its candidates can spend is limited to approximately 70 cents per voter, and parties are forbidden from taking donations from corporations or unions. Corporations and unions themselves, as well as other “third-party” lobby groups are likewise limited to a budget of $150 000 for their own advertising during elections. These rules are all quite new, however, and in recent years there have been a lot of scandalous stories in the Canadian press about various candidates, parties and organizations scamming their way around spending limits by exploiting various loopholes in the law. Then there are those who argue campaign spending limits are a violation of freedom of speech, but in 2004 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled just the opposite.
The Canadian Electoral System
Canada is one of the few countries in the world that still uses the so-called “first-past-the-post” electoral system, where candidates are elected strictly on the basis of who wins the most votes, even if “the most” is not a solid majority. On voting day, any MP candidate who can win a plurality of votes in his or her own district will be declared elected, thereby putting his or her party leader one step closer to becoming prime minister. It’s not terribly uncommon for some MPs in close ridings to be elected with a share of the popular vote that’s around 35 per cent or worse, but proposals for electoral reform have not fared very well in Canada, and at a provincial level, have in fact been repeatedly rejected by voters in referendums.
Any citizen of Canada over the age of 18 is eligible to vote in a federal, provincial or local election. This includes Canadians living abroad, who can vote via absentee ballots at embassies and consulates, and even Canadians in prison, whom the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled cannot be denied voting rights despite their incarceration. The government keeps records of eligible voters in every area of the country, and citizens are expected to be able to confirm their identity, usually by showing ID of some kind, at the voting place. Even though Canada is a country with no shortage of public political debate, a lot of Canadians still consider voting an intensely private matter, and asking about how someone voted remains something of a social taboo.
For a while now, voter turnout in Canadian elections has been steadily declining, a statistic that causes a great deal of outrage and disappointment among journalists, pundits and academics, not to mention the politicians themselves. Depending on how you calculate it, in a typical federal election, only 45 to 60 per cent of Canadians will bother voting at all, and the numbers are generally much lower in provincial and local races. The exact explanation for this disengagement is hard to blame on any one cause, but most analysts attribute it to a public that either feels cynical about the ability for politicians to effect meaningful change on the issues that matter to them, or is simply too lazy and ill-informed to realize how consequential and powerful these politicians actually are.