Democratic elections in Canada are expected to be free and fair, based on notions of equality and the rule of law. This has not always been the case as we can see in respect to suffrage (the right to vote and to be a candidate). The vast majority of Canadians now possess suffrage, but we must not lose sight of the fact that much of the country’s electoral history has been about different segments of the public struggling to win suffrage.
Currently, perhaps the most controversial component of elections in Canada concerns the use of the single member plurality (SMP) electoral system. This system involves first dividing the country into separate territorially-based districts, each to be represented in Parliament by a single member. Those wishing to represent a district have their names listed as candidates on the ballot paper for that district, allowing citizens to indicate their preferred choices. The winning candidate, who becomes the Member of Parliament, is the one who receives the most votes or a plurality—which is not necessarily a majority.
This SMP electoral system is relatively simple and easy to understand, but it has been frequently criticized for distorting the preferences of the electorate. Several reform proposals have consequently been advocated over the years, and some jurisdictions have had alternative electoral systems and/or have considered adopting such reforms.
Apportionment is another major component of the election process in Canada. Deciding the number of electoral districts to be represented in Parliament and allocating these districts to the provinces and territories has often been enshrouded in controversy. Once the number of districts has been decided, as well as where to assign them, the actual drawing of boundaries is rather bureaucratic. Previous problems with gerrymandering when politicians drew the district boundaries have been removed. The demarcation process that follows each decennial census is now conducted by an independent and impartial boundaries commission, based on legislated demarcation criteria, and includes public consultation.
Besides election laws, money plays a key role in the election process. Elections Canada spends necessary funds to conduct elections by hiring and training officers, providing room space and equipment, and counting ballots to determine official results. Similarly, political parties and candidates spend considerable funds in their campaign activities. While such expenditures are necessary, there is the possibility of undue influence and the question of fairness. Consequently, there are a number of regulatory provisions in respect to party revenues including contributions, tax credits, spending limits, and disclosure.
Election campaigns can be viewed as occurring at two levels, especially in the case of the major parties. There is first the national campaign centered on the party leader who crisscrosses the country, presenting the party’s key policy positions and soliciting voter support, working with a team of campaign advisers, and receiving daily media coverage. Then there is the local campaign conducted by each party candidate in his or her electoral district.
Despite the increased sophistication of campaigning, voter turnout has decreased in recent years. This decline has been a cause of concern as to whether campaigns matter, leading to consideration of how to reverse the trend, such as the introduction of online voting. There is also the possibility of greater use of direct democracy mechanisms, including referendums, plebiscites, and recall.
This chapter’s professor profile is on Professor Mebs Kanji who is an associate professor at Concordia, the director of the Workshops on Social Science Research and the co-editor of the Canadian Elections Studies: Assessing Four Decades of Influence. His area of interest is on public support for policy reform, democratic governance and Canadian political culture among others. This chapter’s topic debate is on the importance and need for election and referendum campaigns.
By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:
- understand the key principles and values that underpin democracy in Canada;
- describe the election rules and regulations governing Canadian democracy; and
- demonstrate the dynamics of election campaigns.