Politics

Your Canadian federal election glossary

Wondering what the writ is? Need to know about the national register of electors? Consult our Canadian federal election glossary for more information about the terms you'll come across during the campaign.

Here are some useful definitions of terms you'll come across in election coverage

The 2019 federal election campaign has officially begun. Here's a glossary of terms you'll encounter during the campaign. (Ivanoh Demers/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Canadians head to the polls on Oct. 21 to elect a new federal government.

Elections in Canada take place according to specific rules that govern the process. Here are some of the terms you'll hear during the election campaign.


Advance polls — During specific times and days before election day, polls are opened for people who want to vote early. The ballots are not counted until election day.

Attack ad A negative ad that criticizes a political candidate. These ads are paid for by opposing political parties, or by third-party groups

Ballot The piece of paper on which electors mark a vote for a candidate. Candidates are listed in alphabetical order on the ballot. The ballot also includes information about each candidate's political party, or if the candidate has registered as an independent. See also: special ballot.

Canada Elections Act — The law that regulates federal elections. 

Commissioner of Canada Elections An independent officer who investigates violations of the Canada Elections Act and the Referendum Act. The commissioner is independent of Elections Canada, however the commissioner is appointed to a 10-year term by the Chief Electoral Officer. The commissioner can't have been a candidate or have worked for a political party, either as an employee or contractor. 

Chief electoral officer — Person responsible for overseeing federal elections in Canada. This person is considered an independent agent of Parliament. 

Debate consortiumA group of broadcasters that agree to work together to broadcast and livestream debates between political leaders. The consortium negotiates the terms of the debates with political parties. 

Debates commissionerFor 2019, there is a Leaders' Debates Commission, established by the federal government, that will plan and hold two leaders debates, one in English and one in French, in early to mid-October. It is worth noting the commission will contract an organization, or a group of organizations to plan and run the debates.

You'll need one piece of government-issued photo ID, or two other pieces of ID like a voter information card and a utility bill, to vote. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Donation limit Elections Canada sets limits on how much money can be donated to registered parties, registered associations and nomination candidates. In 2019, the annual limit is $1,600. Additionally, a candidate can donate up to $5,000 to their own campaign. More details are available on the Elections Canada website. These limits are separate from how much third parties can spend on advertising.

Elections Canada — The organization that oversees federal elections and referendums in Canada. It is independent and non-partisan. 

Elector A person who is eligible to vote. Must be a Canadian citizen and at least 18 years old.

Electoral district — A geographical area where residents elect a representative in an election. There are federal, provincial and municipal districts. Districts are often created according to population size, so districts in big cities may be geographically small (Toronto Centre covers just six square kilometres), while in sparsely-populated areas an electoral district may be extremely large (Nunavut is 2,093,190 square kilometres). These are also called constituencies or ridings. Canada has 338 federal electoral districts. 

Electoral reform The term for changing Canada's electoral system to better reflect how the population votes. Currently, the federal system is a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all format, which means that votes for candidates who don't win are essentially discarded. Alternate systems would see election results better reflect the popular vote. 

Electoral District Association (EDA) — The local branch of a political party in an electoral district. The EDA is in charge of the candidate nomination process, has an executive and can raise funds.

Some rules have changed around voting this year, such as Canadians citizens living abroad. Previously, citizen living abroad for five years or fewer could still vote, but laws changed to allow citizens living abroad for any length of time to vote. (CBC)

First past the post — A description of our current electoral system, in which the candidate with the most votes in a riding is elected. The winner doesn't need  a majority of the vote, merely the highest number of votes. First past the post refers to horse racing, where the first horse past the finish line (post) is declared the winner. Critics of the system say that this can lead to governments that don't have the support of the majority of voters. See also: popular vote.

Fixed election date — Canada has a fixed federal election date which means elections are generally held every four years. However, there are some situations in which an election may be held earlier, such as when a government loses a vote of non-confidence.  Elections Canada specifies that the fixed date is the third Monday in October, within four years of the previous federal election. The election also must always take place at least 36 days after the election writ is issued. If that day falls on a holiday, then the election takes place on a Tuesday. 

Judicial recount — A second count of ballots, which takes place in front of a judge. The recount is automatically requested when there's a tie, or when or the difference between the two leading candidates is less than 1/1000 of the votes cast, according to Elections Canada. Electors themselves can also request recounts within four days of the vote if they have concerns over how votes were counted, recorded or how ballots were rejected.

Leaders debate — When the leaders of the parties considered most likely to get seats meet to debate political issues in a live broadcast. Usually there are a series of debates, hosted by a debate consortium. See also: debate consortium, debates commissioner.

National register of electors (voters list) This is also known as the voters list. In Canada it is an electronic database of people eligible to vote that includes names and addresses.  Voters may have to re-register if they move electoral districts. 

Official proclamation of election This is issued by the Governor General of Canada, after the current session of Parliament is dissolved. Once this happens, then the chief electoral officer issues writs of election to every riding in the country.

Pre-writ This is the period before the writs are issued, that is, before the election process officially begins. In 2019, the pre-writ period began on June 30. There are regulations regarding how much third parties can spend on advertising during the pre-writ period.

An elector is a person who is eligible to vote. They must be a Canadian citizen and at least 18 years old. (Peter Power/The Canadian Press)

Political party — A group of people with shared political views who join together to try to get candidates elected. In fact, Elections Canada describes the fielding of candidates as a "fundamental purpose" of a political party, separating it from other politically minded groups. Political parties may be popular and mainstream or appeal to a niche. In order to register as a political party in Canada, a party must have at least 250 members — they have to be electors — and it must endorse at least one of those members as a candidate in an election. 

Here are the registered federal political parties in Canada: 

 

Polling station — The physical location where you go to vote.

Polling clerk — A poll clerk works at a polling station and checks to see if your name is on the voting list.

Popular vote — The total number of votes a party receives, which is different than the number of seats a party wins. It's possible for a party to receive the highest total number of votes, but not win a majority of seats and therefore fail to form a government.  

Returning officer — The person in charge of the electoral process in a riding. This person is appointed by Elections Canada for a 10-year term, and has specific duties to ensure an election runs according to regulations.

Riding — A riding is the same as an electoral district, a geographically defined region that elects a representative.

Riding association — Same as an electoral district association.

A polling station is the physical location where you go to vote. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

Scrutineer — A scrutineer is person authorized on behalf of a candidate to observe at a polling station. A scrutineer can ask to see the ID of someone voting, for example, and can object to it. However, the independent election officer from Elections Canada makes the final decision on whether to allow the person to vote. More here.

Special ballot  These ballots are for electors who can't go to a polling station on election day, and are often mailed to Elections Canada. Electors who vote by special ballot include Canadian citizens who live outside Canada, people in the Canadian Forces, people who are incarcerated and people who want to vote by special ballot because they're away from their riding or they can't make it to the polling station on election day or to advance polls. A special ballot doesn't have a list of candidates. Instead, the elector fills in the name of the candidate they're voting for.  More on special ballots.

Stump speech — A stock speech a candidate gives repeatedly while campaigning, often repeating the same themes, sayings and ideas. The term came from the fact politicians used to deliver speeches from a tree stump

Third party — Elections Canada defines a third party as "a person or group that wants to participate in or influence elections other than as a political party, electoral district association, nomination contestant or candidate." Anyone who spends more than $500 dollars (usually this means advertising) has to register with Elections Canada and abide by spending rules. 

Voter identification card — These cards can be used as one of two required pieces of ID needed to vote. The cards are mailed to registered electors about three weeks before election day, and include the elector's name, address and where they can vote. 

Writ (of election)  The writ is a piece of paper from the chief electoral officer issued to the returning officers in all 338 federal ridings. The writ tells the returning officers to hold an election in that riding on the fixed election date. After election day, the returning officer writes the name of the winning candidate on the writ and returns it to Elections Canada. 

Whistle stop  A short stop made by a candidate on the campaign trail. A whistle-stop tour is when a candidate visits a bunch of places for a very short amount of time. The saying began to be used in a political context by journalists in 1948 when describing U.S. President Harry Truman's campaign train tour.

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