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Marc Mayrand is the chief electoral officer at Elections Canada, which oversees every aspect of the electoral process in this country. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Parliament Hill was abuzz Feb. 23 after reports that Elections Canada had traced a series of illegal calls intended to mislead voters during the last federal election.

What is Elections Canada?

Elections Canada — also known as the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada — is an independent, impartial agency that oversees the administration of federal general elections, by-elections and referendums. The agency, which reports to Parliament, is there to help both voters and politicians, "ensuring Canadians can exercise their democratic rights to vote and be a candidate."

The post of chief electoral officer, currently held by Marc Mayrand, was created through the Dominion Elections Act of 1920 to prevent the partisan bickering that had previously existed around election administration.

Elections Canada is governed by the Canada Elections Act, as well as the Constitution Act (1867), the Constitution Act (1982), the Referendum Act, and the Canada Elections Act as Adapted for the Purposes of a Referendum and the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act.

What does it do?

While its main responsibility is to ensure the smooth administration of federal general elections, by-elections and referendums, Elections Canada has a number of duties, which include:

  • registering political parties, electoral district associations, party leadership contestants and third parties
  • monitoring political financing and disclosing parties’ campaign contributions and financial returns
  • making sure all eligible citizens can vote by conducting public education and providing physical access to polling stations
  • maintaining the National Registry of Electors
  • providing legal and administrative support to independent commissions considering adjustments to federal electoral boundaries

Does Elections Canada handle complaints?

Yes. They are handled by the commissioner of Elections Canada, who is appointed by the chief electoral officer. The current commissioner is William Corbett.

Members of the public can lodge complaints or air concerns about the electoral process, with the proviso that a complaint about an alleged offence must be made within 10 years of the supposed breach.

In order to deal with any complaint, the commissioner requires some minimum information, including the name and address of the complainant, a comprehensive description (with relevant dates) of the supposed infraction and the section of the Canada Elections to which it relates. 

According to a spokesperson for Elections Canada, the agency's practice is to neither confirm nor deny whether it has received or is investigating any complaints.

What are some of the offences?

Breaches of the Canada Elections Act can take many forms, from barring an employee from voting to prematurely publishing election results.

The offences are laid out in sections 480 to 499 of the Canada Elections Act and include:

  • illegally attempting to influence an elector or election results
  • skirting the party contribution limits
  • publishing the results of an election opinion poll during a blackout period
  • partisan action by an election officer
  • using personal information from a voters list for unauthorized purposes

Does Elections Canada have any powers of enforcement?

The commissioner of Elections Canada, who is appointed by the chief electoral officer, ensures compliance and enforcement of the Canada Elections Act and the Referendum Act and can take remedial action when he believes the law has been infringed.

If the commissioner believes an offense has been committed, he can refer it to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who prosecutes any offences under the Canada Elections Act on behalf of the Crown. If this step is taken, Elections Canada will issue a media release.

During an election, if the commissioner has cause to believe that a breach of the act might compromise the fairness of the voting process, he may apply for a court injunction.

What are the penalties for offences under the Canada Elections Act?

If a judge rules that a person or organization has indeed breached the Act, he can impose a fine and/or imprisonment.

He can additionally stipulate that the offender must do perform community service or compensate for damages in another way.

If you are convicted of constraining an employee from being able to vote, for example, you could face a fine of $5,000 and up to five years in prison. Prematurely transmitting election results could lead to a fine of up to $25,000.