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II - How do federal elections work?

Une affiche indiquant la direction d'un bureau de vote en avant-plan et une file d'attente en arrière-plan.

Plus d'une vingtaine de personnes attendaient devant l’église Saint-Ambroise à Québec vers 10 h 30 pour aller voter.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Hadi Hassin


Who may vote? How are parties funded? Who can run for office? In this chapter, we answer all the questions about Canadian federal elections.

Who may vote?

All Canadian citizens aged 18 or older are eligible to vote (even inmates thanks to a Supreme Court decision rendered on October 31, 2002). Only some public office holders, like the chief and assistant chief electoral officers, are ineligible.

Electors can register on the list of electors drawn up from the National Register of Electors. To add their name, they can register at their polling station during the revision period, which ends six days before election day. They can also register at the special-ballot polling station, or at the polling station on election day.

Most electors choose to vote on election day in their riding, at the location given on the information card they receive in the mail.

Electors are permitted to vote by special ballot provided they register at least six days before election day. Special ballots don’t list candidates, so electors must write down the name of the candidate they support.

They can choose to vote in person at their local Elections Canada office for much of the election period, or they can vote by mail.

Electors can also vote at advance polls. These are open on the 10th, 9th, 8th and 7th days before election day.

Also, under Canada Elections Act, employers are required to provide three consecutive hours for all electors to exercise their right to vote on election day.

Political financing

Five, ten, twenty and fifty dollar bills fanned out with two piles of one dollar coins on top.

In Canada, political parties are funded by two sources: individual contributions and public funding.

Photo: getty images/istockphoto / Devonyu

The current Elections Act was amended considerably in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, which tarnished the governing Liberals in the mid-2000s.

Today, the financing of political parties comes from two sources: individual contributions and public funding.

Two series of amendments have tightened rules for private funding. The first, which stemmed from Bill C-24, came into force in 2004 under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government. Other provisions were adopted by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and came into effect in 2007 and 2008.

Under these laws, Canada prohibits contributions from corporations, unions and other associations, unlike most provinces and territories in Canada. Individual contributions are also subject to a limit, which is regularly adjusted for inflation.

Legislative amendments passed in 2014 introduced, among other things, new rules on political financing. The limits on contributions but also on spending by parties and candidates were increased.

Although funding from corporations and unions was stopped, direct public funding of political parties was increased.

Individual contributions

In 2021, individuals could donate within these limits:

  • Up to $1,650 in total a year to a particular registered party
  • Up to $1,650 in total a year to the registered associations, nomination contestants and candidates of a particular registered party
  • Up to $1,650 in total to each independent candidate in an election
  • Up to $1,650 in total to the contestants in a particular leadership contest

The legislation stipulates that the limit increases by $25 per year.

Foreign donations are prohibited, but anonymous donations are permitted provided they are $20 or under.The Federal Accountability Act prohibits anyone from accepting a gift or other advantage after becoming a candidate in an election. Under the Act, gift encompasses sums of money as well as goods and services provided without charge or at less than their commercial value.

Public funding

In 2004, an annual allowance based on the number of votes received in the last election was put in place by the governing Liberal government.

However, four years later, the newly elected Conservative Party decided to end the allowance. Despite opposition from all other parties, it was phased out in December 2011.

The allowance began to be reduced on April 1, 2012 and was completely eliminated after April 1, 2015.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper getting out of his car.

Prime Minister of Canada from 2006 to 2015, Stephen Harper and his Conservative government ended public funding of political parties in 2015.

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Sean Kilpatrick

Candidates and political parties also have part of their election expenses reimbursed provided they obtained a certain percentage of votes. The percentages set for the parties are the same as those for allowances.

A tax credit is also provided for contributions made to a candidate or political party (considered indirect public funding).

Other provisions

Election expenses of candidates and parties are subject to separate limits based on the number of electors registered.

Any donation of $200 or more must be divulged.

Finally, candidates, riding associations and political parties must all file financial reports.

How are MPs elected?

A pencil marks a cross on a ballot.

There is no limit to the number of candidates who can run in a riding, but a candidate can only run in one riding.

Photo: iStock

In Canada, MPs are elected in a system known as first past the post. Electors vote for the candidate of their choice in their riding (also called an electoral district or constituency). The candidate with the most votes becomes the member for the riding. The party winning the most ridings forms the government.

The voting system doesn’t include proportional representation; in other words, a party can form the government without obtaining the most votes nationally.

However, ridings do take into account the demographic density of provinces and territories. In light of changes to the National Register of Electors, the number of MPs in the House of Commons is periodically reassessed and electoral boundaries are readjusted.

Who may run?

Election posters on poles

During the election period, candidates put up posters of themselves throughout their constituencies.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Jean-Claude Taliana

All Canadian citizens aged 18 or over may run in an election unless they are convicted of a crime under the Canada Elections Act or detained in a penitentiary.

Some public office holders are also ineligible (senators, members of provincial or territorial legislatures, the chief and assistant chief electoral officers, returning officers and some judges).

Candidates may represent a party or run as independents or without any designation.

To run, candidates must appoint an official agent who will incur election expenses. They must also pay a $1,000 deposit, which will be reimbursed once their official agent submits a return of election expenses and unused official receipts.

MPs are elected for a five-year term. However, when the government has a majority of seats in the Commons, the prime minister traditionally calls a general election in the fourth year of his term of office.

Cost of an election

An illustration showing a man dropping a dollar sign into a ballot box.

Over the years, Canadian general elections seem to get more and more expensive.

Photo: Getty Images

Though we say that democracy has no price, the reality is that organizing and conducting a general election, which is a principle expression of democracy, necessarily implies major costs.

Among such election expenses are the salaries paid to the thousands of citizens hired prior and during elections to ensure that voting proceeds smoothly and fairly in all the 65,000 polling stations in federal electoral districts across the country.

Other expenses include the reimbursement of monies spent during an election and for the provision and dissemination of all the necessary information needed by Canadian voters.

So, how much does a federal general election cost Canadian taxpayers?

Organization costs

According to Elections Canada's estimates, the 44th election in October 2021 is expected to have cost $610 million, making it the most expensive in the country's history.

This would be an increase of more than 21% compared to the 2019 election, which cost approximately $502.4 million.

Half of the cost increase for this national election is directly attributable to the health measures that had to be implemented across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elections Canada said.

For the 42nd general election in 2015, the cost was estimated at $471.7 million.





Election period

78 days

40 days

38 days (decrease)

Registered parties



2 (decrease)

Confirmed candidates

1 792

2 146

354 (increase)


25 939 742

27 373 058

1 433 316 (increase)


$471.7 million

$502.4 million*

$30.7 million (increase)

Cost (in constant dollars)

$502.6 million

$502.4 million*

$0.2 million (decrease)

Note: Data for the 44th general election are not included in this table because, at the time of publication, Elections Canada had not yet released them.

Source: Elections Canada


41st ELECTION - 2011

40th ELECTION - 2008 (estimate)

39th ÉLECTION - 2006 (estimate)

38th ELECTION - 2004

37th ELECTION - 2000

TOTAL COST (in millions of $)






Source: Elections Canada


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