How Federal Elections in Canada Work

An Overview of Voting and Government

Parliament Buildings in Ottawa
Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. Dennis McColeman / Photographer's Choice

Canada is a federal parliamentary democracy within a constitutional monarchy. While the monarch (the head of state) is determined by heredity, Canadians elect members of parliament, and the leader of the party that gets the most seats in parliament becomes prime minister. The prime minister serves as the head of executive power and, therefore, the head of the government. All adult citizens of Canada are eligible to vote but must show positive identification at their polling place. 

Elections Canada

Elections Canada is a nonpartisan agency that is responsible for the conduct of federal elections, by-elections, and referendums. Elections Canada is headed by the chief electoral officer of Canada, who is appointed by a resolution of the House of Commons.

When Are Federal Elections Held in Canada?

Canadian federal elections are usually held every four years. There is fixed-date legislation on the books that sets a "fixed date" for federal elections to be held every four years on the first Thursday of October. Exceptions can be made, however, especially if the government loses the confidence of the House of Commons.

Citizens have several ways to vote. These include:

  • Vote at the polls on election day
  • Vote at a local advance poll
  • Vote at the local Elections Canada office
  • Vote by mail

Ridings and Members of Parliament

The census determines Canada's electoral districts or ridings. For the 2015 Canadian federal election, the number of ridings increased from 308 to 338. Voters in each riding elect one member of parliament (MP) to send to the House of Commons. The Senate in Canada is not an elected body.

Federal Political Parties

Canada maintains a registry of political parties. While 24 parties fielded candidates and received votes in the 2015 election, the Canadian elections website listed 16 registered parties in 2017. Each party can nominate one candidate for each riding. Often, representatives of only a handful of federal political parties win seats in the House of Commons. For example, in the 2015 election, only the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois, and the Green Party saw candidates elected to the House of Commons.

Forming the Government

The party that wins the most ridings in a general federal election is asked by the governor general to form the government. The leader of that party becomes the prime minister of Canada. If the party wins more than half the ridings—that's 170 seats in the 2015 election—then it will have a majority government, which makes it much easier to get legislation passed in the House of Commons. If the winning party wins 169 seats or fewer, it will form a minority government. In order to get legislation through the House, a minority government usually has to adjust policies to get enough votes from MPs of other parties. A minority government must constantly work to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons in order to stay in power.

The Official Opposition

The political party that wins the second highest number of seats in the House of Commons becomes the Official Opposition.