Canada’s first federal election was hardly democratic. Voting in
1867 was limited to upper class, male, British subjects. There
was no secret ballot and no law to govern campaign
contributions. Those who were eligible to vote might not have
seen or heard from the party leaders (there was no radio or
television to broadcast debates), and there were no opinion
polls to tell them how their preferred party seemed to be doing
across the country. Results of the election would not have been
known for several days and newspapers would not have had
complete stories until after that.
The evolution of Canadian democracy came in stages. The
Dominion Elections Act of 1874 introduced the secret ballot. The
franchise began to be extended to women and others during the
First World War. The position of Chief Electoral Officer — an
individual charged with watching the process and legality of the
election — was only created in 1920. The legal voting age was
reduced from 21 to 18 in 1970. The National Register of Electors
(the permanent voters list) was created in 1997. Cash subsidies
to political parties based on their percentage of the popular
vote were introduced in 2003. And bans on corporate and union
donations to political campaigns were enacted in 2007.
Elections in Canada today are massive events. There are over
65,000 voting places spread across the country in schools,
churches, and halls, and Elections Canada employs more than
190,000 temporary workers during what are normally 36-day
During elections the work of government slows, and no major
policy decisions are made. Canadians who typically pay little
attention to politics begin to familiarize themselves with the
issues of the day. Opinion polls and the national and local
media become critical players in the political landscape.
Voters cast their ballots at the polls (open for 12 consecutive
hours on election day), through advanced polls, or in some cases
by special ballot through the mail. Mobile polls are used to
allow those in chronic care institutions to take part in the
Political leadership debates are televised, and the television
and radio stations allocate free and paid air time to political
parties during the campaign.
In spite of all of the changes since 1867, the key to Canada’s
approach to elections and voting — the first-past-the-post
system — has remained the same.
In a federal election, the candidate in one of Canada’s
308 constituencies or ridings who receives the most votes,
regardless of whether he or she captures a majority of the total
votes, wins the seat in the House of Commons. As a result,
parties that form majority governments in Canada often receive
far less than 50 percent of the popular vote.
The most glaring example of the pitfalls of this system was
evident in 1993 when the Progressive Conservative Party won 16
percent of the popular vote but just two out of the then 295
seats in the House of Commons, while the Bloc Québécois’ 13.5
percent of the vote brought the party 54 seats. The Bloc’s votes
had been concentrated in Quebec; the Conservative vote was
spread across Canada.
Given such results, it is hardly surprising that Canadians
differ over the merits of the first-past-the-post system. Some
argue that representation by population — a party that wins 15
percent of the popular vote would receive 15 percent of the
seats in the House of Commons — would better represent the will
of the country. Others respond that “rep by pop” would lead to
endless minority governments tied to the immediate demands of
special interest groups and unable to develop long-term policies
that promoted national priorities.
In spite of the intensity of this debate and of political
debates in general, voter turnout in Canada has been in decline
for two decades. Until the 1990s, it was common for 75 percent
of the electors on the voters list to cast ballots.
In 2004, just 61 percent voted, and under 65 percent
turned out in 2006. Youth turnout is significantly worse,
averaging less than 40 percent in recent elections. Many
political analysts fear that a continued decline will erode the
legitimacy of Canadian democracy.
Some Canadians argue that the solution is mandatory voting, as
in Australia. Others counter that forcing people to vote would
only increase the number of uninformed Canadians making serious
decisions about their country’s future. They want improved
public education, and many suggest online voting as a way to
Although Canadians are often critical of their electoral system,
by international standards, it remains one of the best. Since
1980, Elections Canada has advised over 100 countries on
democratic governance, and electoral fraud in Canada remains
Further reading: John C.
Courtney, Elections; John Duffy, Fights of Our Lives: Elections,
Leadership, and the Making of Canada
Next Instalment: On Being
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