Canada's electoral history from 1867 to today

More than 155 years of voting in Canada

by Maurice Y. Michaud (he/him)

A sample ballot in CanadaIt never ceases to amaze me when people complain about "having yet another election." I only need to think about the failed attempt in the first 20 years of the 21st century to install some form of democracy in Afghanistan, or the current bloody struggle of Ukrainians to preserve their democracy, as imperfect as it is or was, to come to a deep appreciation of how precious Canada's democracy is, despite its flawed electoral system.

Although Canadians are often accused of being smug when comparing themselves with their neighbours to the south, it is indisputable to me that the blush is off the rose that presents itself as "The Beacon of Democracy." Although we, too, are witnessing a sharper polarization within the electorate, at least we do not have to contend with systemic flaws that would make us vulnerable to shenanigans like gerrymandering, as is the case in the United States. As such, each time we are called to the polls, we should be celebrating and giving thanks to the fact that we have something that many people around the world would literally kill to have!

There! I am done editorializing, so let me tell you how many electoral events are recorded in PoliCan and about which you can find all the details in this section of the website.

This table shows, by jurisdiction, the year of the earliest and latest recorded event as well as the number of the earliest and current assembly (or of the last one in the case of the North-Western Territory).

  • Keep in mind that, for each general election (Elec), there is an individual race in each riding, while more than one race could occur during any given by-election.
     
  • What's more, note that this table makes a distinction between the absolute number of races (N) and the number of real races (n) by subtracting from the former the number of races won by acclamation (Accl.).
     
  • There are 253 by-election races that are currently labelled as fake acclamations (Acc?) because the data is missing, the vast majority being in Ontario and Prince Edward Island. These "Acc?" tags represent 68.04% of by-election races won by acclamation in Ontario and 53.75% of those in P.E.I., but 48.89% and 28.29% of all by-election races in those jurisdictions. The PoliCan database would be complete if it weren't for those "Acc?" tags; instead, it is 99.37% complete.
     
  • Referendums can never be won by acclamation as they are by definition questions (Q) offering a choice between at least two options.
     
  • Ministerial by-elections (Minis.) are a subset (16.21% of all by-elections). In the Westminster parliamentary system as practised in most jurisdictions in Canada up until the 1930s, a person who was named to the cabinet for the first time was required to resign their seat and run in such an election soon afterwards. Many of those were won by acclamation, and extremely rare were the times when a newly minted minister would fail to regain their seat even if it was challenged.

Size of database in terms of electoral events and races
Jurisdiction Elections Referendums
Juri. Year Assem. General By-Elections
Elec Races Elec Races
Min Max Min Max N Accl. n Acc? N Accl. n Acc? Minis. Q Races
1 CA 1867 2024 1 44 44 11,384 263 11,121 0 644 1,010 366 644 0 145 3 31
9 AB 1905 2023 1 31 31 2,153 29 2,124 0 88 111 19 92 0 17 5 769
8 BC 1871 2023 1 42 42 2,173 24 2,149 0 164 211 59 152 0 67 15 806
11 MB 1870 2024 1 43 43 2,119 114 2,005 0 140 181 52 129 5 40 4 245
3 NB 1866 2023 21 60 40 1,984 48 1,936 0 187 248 86 162 0 53 1 12
7 NL 1949 2024 29 50 22 967 18 949 0 60 71 4 67 5 0 2 100
2 NS 1867 2024 24 64 41 1,766 25 1,741 0 118 176 56 120 0 24 0 0
14 NT 1951 2023 1 20 20 302 40 262 1 15 17 4 13 2 0 3 47
13 NU 1999 2021 1 6 6 123 11 112 0 11 14 2 12 0 0 0 0
15 NW 1888 1903 1 5 5 143 36 107 0 13 21 9 12 0 7 0 0
6 ON 1867 2024 1 43 43 4,505 93 4,412 0 295 405 93 312 198 57 1 107
4 PE 1873 2024 26 67 42 1,254 37 1,217 0 99 152 37 115 43 34 3 70
5 QC 1867 2023 1 43 43 4,089 294 3,795 0 275 428 90 338 0 53 5 377
10 SK 1905 2023 1 29 29 1,652 23 1,629 0 104 131 31 100 0 20 0 0
12 YT 1970 2021 22 35 14 227 0 227 0 11 13 0 13 0 0 0 0
ΣElec+Q = 2,731  ΣN = 40,594 465 34,841 1,055 33,786 1 2,224 3,189 908 2,281 253 517 42 2,564
The jurisdiction numbers are arbitrary and only hold significance for the maintenance of the data.
Future-dated events are excluded from these tallies.

The MMP simulator can be run on 408 of the 465 general elections.

"Acc?" stands for missing data (namely races entered as having been won by acclamation when in fact the results are unknown), while "Minis." shows the number of ministerial by-elections.

A small handful of by-elections that did not really occur was added to this database to record when someone's election was overturned and the seat was handed over to the challenger who had lost.

Because it was a two-pronged question, the 2018 referendum in British Columbia on electoral reform had to be recorded as two separate events but is counted as a single event. What's more, at this time, only the aggregate results by provinces and territories are available for the 1992 Canada/Québec referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, although efforts are underway to obtain the results by riding.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, unseating a member was commonplace and the mechanism to challenge someone's election seems to have been very lax when viewed through presentist lens, as many by-elections were held merely because the challenger — often the government or the defeated incumbent — did not like the result. What's more, newly appointed ministers had to resign and run in a ministerial by-election. Therefore, by-elections were far more frequent than they are today.

In short, the PoliCan database contains about 2,700 "elections" since 1866, with more than 40,000 individual "races" within them. Although Confederation only began in 1867, New Brunswick's 1866 general election is widely viewed today as its first of the Confederation era, while the three other new provinces each held a general election in 1867. Similarly, the 1873 general election on Prince Edward Island was held a few months before the province formally joined Confederation.

The detailed results of some by-elections still have to be found and recorded.

  • I have little hope of ever finding the missing data for 43 by-elections in Prince Edward Island. The reason is that, in the smallest provincial jurisdiction, Elections PEI has the most incomplete and chaotic record keeping practices. They produce beautiful statistical reports that consistently fail to give (or make hard to find) data points that really matter, like the number of eligible voters and the number of rejected votes, so unless they're hiding this data in some secret vault (which I doubt)... What's more, for more than 200 years, ridings were merely numbered slices of the three provincial counties, with each county having five two-member ridings (e.g., Kings / Prince / Queens 1st, 2nd, 3rd...), with Queens getting a sixth two-member riding for Charlottetown starting in 1966.
    PEI electoral map
    Despite switching to 27 named single-member districts in 1996, Elections PEI seems to remain stuck in thinking in numbered district terms: "See the results of the by-election in District 16" instead of "See the results of the by-election in Cornwall—Meadowbank." And for the general elections from 1966 to 1993, the sum of enumerated voters in each district is greater than the province's population at the time! So let's just say that I struggled and still struggle to find, interpret and enter the electoral results of a province that has a smaller population than the City of Sherbrooke or 29 other Canadian cities!
     
  • On the other hand, the largest provincial jurisdiction, Ontario, has one of the most complete datasets online provided by Elections Ontario, but the details of by-elections prior to 1987 are not posted and are available only in hard copy at their office and in some public libraries. With the naive hope that if I gave a little I might get a little, I respectfully submitted to Elections Ontario in March 2021 a listing of 180 errors I had found in their "Data Explorer" application, hoping that, in exchange, they would consider adding to it the 198 missing by-election result sets. Not only did they decline to entertain the idea; 166 of the 180 errors I flagged remained in their application as of late December 2022. I suppose I failed to establish trust that my endeavour is serious and meticulous and that I really did go through their entire data set, so I might just have to go visit them in Toronto or an archive library in Ontario to get what's missing.
Nevertheless, nowhere other than PoliCan will you find 99.37% of the electoral results in Canada since Confederation in 1867, in a standardized, searchable format and with so many links expanding on the people who ran for office.



© 2019, 2024 :: PoliCan.ca (Maurice Y. Michaud)
Pub.: 23 Dec 2021 10:07
Rev.: 29 Apr 2023 11:02 (but data presented dynamically)