Many writs, no 'dropping': What the election call actually means

The federal election is on. And that's all because the "writ has dropped." But nothing has actually dropped — and there's a lot more than just a single writ involved.

'Dropping the writ' is an inaccurate way of describing the start of an election, but the term persists

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's visit to Governor General Julie Payette kicked off the writs process. All 338 writs are being written up, but not dropped. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal election has started. We know it has because the writ has "dropped."

Nothing has actually dropped, of course — and there's a lot more than just a single writ involved.

In fact, writs are drawn up for each of the country's 338 ridings for a federal election. A writ is a formal written order instructing the returning officer in a single electoral district to hold an election to select a member of Parliament. It specifies the day the names of the candidates must be officially recorded and sets a polling date.

That work started Wednesday, when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau visited Gov. Gen. Julie Payette and asked her to dissolve Parliament. The move clears Election Canada's chief electoral officer to start issuing writs.

Despite its inaccuracy, the "writ drop" expression has long been used to mark the start of an election. And it really annoys some people.

David Onley was in charge of signing all the writs when he was Ontario's lieutenant governor. He dealt with three provincial elections during his stint and the term "writ drop" came up each time. He hates it.

"I believe in precision of thought," he said. "If it's a fist fight, it's not a water pistol squirting contest."

David Onley, left, signs the writs in his kitchen ahead of the 2014 Ontario provincial election. (Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario)

Onley said that if he saw or heard the phrase in the news, he would contact the reporter and ask them to reconsider using it. He prefers a more specific term: "drawing up the writ."

"No lieutenant governor or governor general would ever drop a writ," he said.

Writs date back to pre-Confederation

The term's origins are murky. Some believe it's a contraction of the longer (and more accurate) "drawing up the writ." According to the CBC's archives, references to "writ drops" started showing up in national newspapers in the early 1980s.

The writ itself has been used in Canada since before Confederation, originally representing those serving in the assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada. Library and Archives Canada stores these writs in its collection, along with thousands of writs from past general elections and by-elections.

There's a writ for every riding. Post-election, they are updated with the winner's name - like this one for Prime Minister John A. Macdonald in 1882. (Library and Archives Canada)

Paul Thomas said he believes it's a uniquely Canadian term.

He's a senior research associate with the Samara Centre for Democracy who once worked in political affairs in the United Kingdom. When he mentioned "writ drops" there, he said, he got blank stares from his colleagues.

"I find it fascinating how the language of politics changes and what is taken for granted in some countries has no knowledge in others," he said. "You assume they function in the same way."

So what's changed?

Even though parties have been campaigning for months now, Thomas said he considers the issuing of the writs to be the "starter's pistol for the election." And that means revised rules.

With writs issued, parties have to start tracking their expenses for the election period and make sure they don't exceed the limits. If a party runs candidates in all 338 ridings, the maximum amount it can spend is around $28 million.

Here's what the writ looks like. One of these is drawn up for all 338 ridings across the country and signed by the chief electoral officer and the Deputy of the Governor General. (Elections Canada)

There are different limits for individual candidates in each riding, calculated according to the number of voters on the electors' list and the size of the riding in question. Trudeau, for example, will get to spend an estimated $83,944.33 in his Papineau riding, while Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer gets to spend a more modest $56,236.55 in his Regina—Qu'Appelle riding.

Parties no longer have to give a heads-up to Elections Canada when they are throwing a fundraising event. Outside of an election, they need to give five days' notice.

And during the writ period, no candidate is allowed to attend citizenship ceremonies as guests or speakers, to avoid politicizing the process.

Avoiding the writ

According to the CBC language guide, reporters should avoid referencing a "writ drop" in their stories because it is:

  • "Hackneyed."
  • "Odd imagery."
  • "Generally inaccurate."

If it has to be used, the language guide prefers the term "issuing the writs."

Despite his best efforts to curb talk of dropping writs, Onley said he expects the term to play a prominent role in election coverage once again.

"I know it's a hopeless cause," he said. "But like Don Quixote, I'll just keep tilting at the windmill."


Haydn Watters is a roving reporter in Ontario, mostly serving the province's local CBC Radio shows. He has worked for the CBC in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and entertainment unit. He ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont. You can get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.

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