CBC News Federal Election
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Minority governments and other close calls: What happens next?


Questions
1. If the ruling party comes in second in an election in which no party has a majority, can that party continue as the government?
Answer »
2. In the event of an equality of votes, how is the tie broken?
Answer »
3. Can you please explain what a judicial recount is? What is the procedure? Does it mean that a judge presides over the recount? Where does it take place - in a courtroom?
Answer »

Answers
1.

If the ruling party comes in second in an election in which no party has a majority, can that party continue as the government?

 

A minority government is a situation in which no one party has more than 50 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. With 308 ridings electing MPs this time, a party would need 155 to form what's called a majority government.

Susan Bonner explains how minority governments 
            work. - runs 2:34VIDEO
Susan Bonner explains how minority governments work.
(Runs 2:34)
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If no party wins 155 seats, the leader of the ruling party (the Liberals in this case) gets first crack at convincing the Governor General that he can form a government, even if another party has won more ridings. That's because the prime minister remains the prime minister until his government is defeated by another party that wins a majority of seats in a general election, he resigns, or his government loses a vote of confidence on a major motion in the House of Commons (for example, on the vote to accept a budget). With all the other parties combined holding more seats and thus votes than the ruling party, this is the usual way a minority government comes to an end.

The day of defeat can be staved off for months or even years if the governing party strikes a pact with one or more small parties to support it on parliamentary votes. (Click here for our look at minority governments in Canadian history, including a summary of the King-Byng Affair.) The usual payoff is a promise that the ruling party will introduce legislation that accomplishes some of the planks in the minor party's platform. At some point, however, the relationship falls apart over some deep disagreement on policy or an itch to get back to the polls to ask voters for a more stable majority government.

Riding Report - runs 5:10AUDIO
Anna-Maria Tremonti interviews Peter Russell about minority government in Canada.
(Runs: 8:27)
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Governor General Adrienne Clarkson would come into the picture if our next government falls on a confidence vote. She would go to the party with the best chance of forming a different minority government with the same group of 308 MPs sitting in the House of Commons. Say the Liberals had won 110 seats and the Conservatives 140, with the other parties racking up 58 between them. If Liberal Leader Paul Martin's attempt at a minority government fell, Clarkson would ask Conservative Leader Stephen Harper if he was prepared to form a government. If he could form an alliance with another party, the Bloc Québécois for example, he could then rule for as long as that friendship stayed intact (or until the natural end of the government's five-year mandate). But that coalition too would likely fall apart before long and the Conservatives would lose a vote of confidence.

If no party is prepared to form a government, the Governor General will dissolve Parliament and call a general election, in which all the parties get a chance to win more than half the seats and form a majority government.

That's not a guaranteed result after a minority government falls in Canada, it should be noted. Liberal Lester B. Pearson led two back-to-back minority governments following elections in 1963 and 1965. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was the first prime minister in Canadian history to never win a majority government.


2.

In the event of an equality of votes, how is the tie broken?

When there's a tie in a particular riding, or when there's a vote difference of one-1000th of the total number of votes cast or less, the returning officer for the riding automatically orders a judicial recount.

Brian Stewart reports on minority governments in Canada. - runs 9:33VIDEO
Brian Stewart reports on minority governments in Canada.
(Runs 9:33)
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If the difference is wider, any voter, including a candidate, has four days after the election to ask a judge to carry out a judicial recount. If the judge grants a recount, it must begin within four days of the receipt of the request. The candidate with the most votes after the recount is declared the winner. If the two top candidates are tied after the recount, a by-election will be held for that electoral district, according to a Canada Elections Act amendment from 2000.

In the past, three tied federal races were decided by the returning officer for the riding in question, using whatever method that officer chose, such as tossing a coin or drawing a straw. Victories were granted to �douard Guilbault (Cons.) during the 1887 general election in the riding of Joliette, Que.; Nicholas Flood Davin (Cons.) during the 1896 general election in the riding of Assiniboia West, NWT; and Paul Martineau (P.C.) during the 1963 general election in the riding of Pontiac-Temiscamingue, Que.


3

Can you please explain what a judicial recount is? What is the procedure? Does it mean that a judge presides over the recount? Where does it take place – in a courtroom?

A judicial recount is held when two candidates in a federal riding are tied or almost tied for first place after the votes are counted on Election Night. Given how close this particular election seems a week before voting day, we may be seeing more than the usual handful of them at the beginning of July.

Susan Lunn reports on how minority governments change the way parliament works. - runs 3:12AUDIO
Susan Lunn reports on how minority governments change the way parliament works.
(Runs 3:12)
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If the two top vote totals are very close to each other, with the different being less than one one-thousandth (or 0.1 per cent) of the total number of votes cast in that riding, a recount is automatic. The riding's returning officer must fill out the paperwork within four days of the results being validated. A judge who normally presides in a court within the riding then sets a date within the next four days on which the judicial recount will begin.

If the difference is more but still fairly close, either one of the candidates or a person acting on their behalf can request a recount. Of course, the candidate with the lower total is much more likely to do so, given that the stakes are so high. The Canada Elections Act leaves the door open wider, saying any voter can request a recount, as long as he or she can provide an affidavit from a credible witness that "a returning officer has incorrectly added up the results of the voting statements; a deputy returning officer has incorrectly counted or rejected ballots; or a deputy returning officer has incorrectly recorded the number of votes cast." The major parties usually send representatives to the polling stations to monitor the counting procedures on Election Night, so these people are usually the "credible witness."

It's a complicated procedure, spelled out in more detail in the Canada Elections Act. But briefly, here's how it works.

After the votes from each polling station in every one of Canada's 308 ridings are counted, the ballot boxes are all sealed and stored in a safe place authorized by Elections Canada. Then, if a judicial recount is authorized for a certain riding, the relevant boxes are brought to either the appointed judge's courtroom or some other designated place (there is nothing in the Canada Elections Act that specifies where a judicial recount must be held). The judge checks each box's seal to make sure nobody has tampered with it. Then each box in turn is reopened and the judge counts every single ballot in it, as well as carefully adding up the totals from all the boxes gathered from the riding.

During the recount, the top two candidates in the riding and up to two representatives each may be present to watch. (If a candidate can't be there, he or she can send three representatives instead, all of whom must be voters in the riding.) The returning officer for the riding must also attend. The judge may choose to summon and question witnesses as well as simply count the ballots.

After the recount is completed, the judge will certify the number of votes cast for each candidate and the final total is entered as the result in the contested riding. And finally and officially, voters in the riding will know who their next MP will be.


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