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Canada - Elections

In Canada's parliamentary system, governments must retain the "confidence" of the House of Commons to govern. The Governor General may dissolve the House of Commons -- on the advice of the prime minister - if a sitting government fails to win a "confidence" measure. Minority governments are especially vulnerable to such defeats. During a federal election, the Prime Minister and Cabinet remain in place, but the Commons ceases to meet and all pending legislation dies. New elections usually take place about 36 days after dissolution in all "ridings," with the Governor General then calling upon the leader of whichever party wins a majority, or the largest minority, to form a new government. There are strict limits on campaign financing, spending, and advertising. A 2007 law that established a fixed date for elections on a four-year cycle. Canada's free and fair elections set an outstanding model for the world; Elections Canada has organized over 400 international democratic development missions in 100 countries to share its expertise.

Canada inherited a parliamentary system from the United Kingdom, in which the leader of the political party that wins a majority of seats -- at least 155 out of 308 -- in the House of Commons becomes the Prime Minister and forms a Cabinet. In the event that there is no majority, the Governor General (representing the Queen) asks the leader of the party that wins the largest number of seats (even though still only a minority) to form a government.

The Governor General dissolves Parliament on the advice of the prime minister when a ruling government loses a vote of "confidence" in the House of Commons, i.e., on significant fiscal bills, the Speech from the Throne (the government's overall policy blueprint), and on any other major bills or motions that the government may designate as confidence measures, or at any other time the prime minister may advise. Since passage of new legislation on elections in 2007, the Governor General must also call for new elections on a fixed four year cycle for the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year following the previous federal election. The first such election was on October 19, 2009.

To call a new federal election, the Governor General signs a Royal Proclamation ordering separate writs (orders) -- called "dropping the writ" -- authorizing Elections Canada (a non-partisan, independent agency that reports to Parliament) under the Canada Elections Act to conduct elections in each of the 308 federal "ridings," the Canadian equivalent of a U.S. Congressional district or a constituency. The Governor General sets the date of the election and the date when Parliament will reconvene. The campaign must last a minimum of thirty-six days, and polling date must fall on a Monday, although it may fall on a Tuesday if the desired date is a public holiday. There is no maximum length for these campaigns, but the custom is to stick to thirty-six days.

Political parties must register with Elections Canada, have a minimum of 250 members, and field at least one candidate. In the 2006 federal election, there were fifteen registered parties, of which only four won seats. The Bloc Qubcois runs candidates only in the province of Quebec. Approximately 5 per cent of candidates run as independents. Elections Canada conducts the election, trains and funds election officers, and monitors financing and other rules. Voter turn out in the 2006 election was 64.7% (60.9% in 2004).

There is no limit on the amount of money that parties and individual candidates may raise, but total election spending is capped. Parties and individual candidates are subject to separate limits that vary according to the number of voters in each riding. For registered parties, the formula is C$.70 (adjusted annually for inflation) multiplied by the number of registered electors in each riding in which each party is running a candidate. In the 2006 federal election, the total spending cap per party was C$18,278,278.64. For candidates, the formula is C$2.07 for each of the first 15,000 electors in the riding; C$1.04 for each of the next 100,000 electors; and C$0.52 for each of the remaining electors (all figures adjusted annually for inflation).

Only Canadian citizens and permanent residents may donate to registered parties, to a maximum of C$1,100 per individual per calendar year; contributions in cash are limited to C$20 to allow Elections Canada to track financing. Tax credits are available for political donations. The law prohibits all donations from corporations, trade unions, and other associations.

Parties that receive at least 2 percent of valid votes cast nationally, or 5 percent in the ridings they have contested, are entitled to a refund of fifty percent of their eligible election expenses from public funds. Candidates who receive at least ten percent of votes cast in their riding are eligible for reimbursement of sixty percent of their election expenses. In addition, registered parties that receive 2 percent of valid votes nationally, or 5 percent in ridings they have contested, are eligible for an ongoing annual allowance of C$1.75 for each vote won (indexed to inflation) in the previous federal election.

Elections Canada regulates and allocates media broadcasting time -- both paid and free -- in consultation with the political parties. Broadcasters are legally required collectively to provide 429 minutes of paid time in prime time periods at subsidized rates. Networks that receive public funding (e.g., CBC) must collectively also provide free time at least equal to the time they provided in the previous election (654 minutes in 2006) and divide it among the parties. No party may exceed a 50% share of regulated broadcasting time, but parties may buy extra time at the discretion of broadcasters at market rates. All election advertising expenses are subject to the maximum spending cap per candidate and party. Election advertising and the broadcasting of previously unreleased public opinion surveys is prohibited on election day.

Election advertising by third parties is limited to C$179,400 per organization and to C$3,588 per riding. Third parties -- defined as a person or group, including an unincorporated trade union, trade association, corporation, or other group of persons acting together by mutual consent for a common purpose -- must register with Elections Canada upon incurring C$500 in election-related advertising expenses. Such advertising must identify the third parties and state that they funded the ad. Third parties must also appoint a financial auditor for election advertising expenses over C$5,000, may not accept anonymous or foreign-sourced funds, and must submit detailed financial accounts -- including names of all donors -- to Election Canada of all election advertising spending within four months after election day.

Any party convicted of the serious charge of willful collusion to exceed expense limits also faces possible deregistration. The Conservative Party denied that it broke the law.

Canada practices a "single-member plurality" or "first-past-the-post" system, in which the candidate with the most votes in each riding wins the seat. All Canadian citizens aged eighteen or over are eligible to vote. Elections Canada maintains a permanent voters' list -- the National Register of Electors -- with information (name, address, gender, and date of birth) that it continuously updates based on federal, provincial, and territorial data sources. Citizens may choose not to be included in the list, but then must register for each election at a polling station or with an election official by providing evidence of eligibility. Voters do not register as members of a political party and there are no fees to vote. Voting is by secret ballot.

Elections Canada appoints an impartial returning officer in each electoral riding to rent space for polling stations, hires non-partisan poll clerks to staff the stations, and oversees the conduct of the election. On polling day, each political party may also assign one representative to each polling station as a "scrutineer" to observe the election.

On election day, polling stations are open for twelve consecutive hours, with hours of voting staggered across time zones to allow the majority of results to become available at approximately the same time nationwide (9:30 p.m. EST). Election results from other ridings or regions are blacked out until all polls close in that riding. Elections Canada officially validates results within seven days of the election, returns the writs six days after validation, and publishes the results, at which point they are considered official.

The House of Commons reconvenes on the date set by the Governor General in the initial Royal Proclamation, or at a later date if so authorized in a new Proclamation on the advice of the prime minister. There is no rule regarding how quickly Parliament should meet after an election, but the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires that Parliament sit at least once every twelve months.

The prime minister and Cabinet continue to exercise their duties throughout a campaign and election. If the party of an incumbent prime minister wins the election, the prime minister and Cabinet do not need to be sworn in again, with the exception of ministers who change portfolios or new ministers appointed to Cabinet for the first time. If the governing party loses the election, the prime minister and cabinet remain in office during a transition period, the length of which is negotiated between the incoming and outgoing governments (usually ten to fourteen days). The outgoing Cabinet resigns en masse immediately prior to the swearing-in of an incoming Cabinet.

Canada upholds a high standard for free and fair elections. It is in the first tier of Freedom House's index of countries that protect and promote the political and civil rights of their citizens, including organization of truly democratic elections. Since 1980, Elections Canada has organized some 400 international democratic development missions in 100 countries.

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