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When Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau asked Gov. Gen. Mary Simon to dissolve Parliament in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, he triggered what is estimated to be Canada’s most expensive federal election ever.
Elections Canada is projecting a $610-million price tag for the 36-day campaign.
In 2019, the election cost $502.4 million. So, why, two years later, is it costing approximately $100 million more?
“A lot goes into running an election that you might not see,” said Holly Ann Garnett, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada.
“Essentially, elections are some of the largest mass mobilizations of the citizenry.”
Pandemic measures hike the price
Several factors are at play. First, delivering an election in a pandemic requires added safety measures.
“That will be the peculiarity of this election,” said Marc Mayrand, former chief electoral officer for Elections Canada from 2007-2016.
“That means Elections Canada has to set up new procedures, maybe hire a bit more staff, make sure that protocols are followed and invest in some equipment.”
A fact sheet posted on the Elections Canada website from November 2020 estimated costs for pandemic safety material (such as masks, plastic dividers and sanitizer), adjustments to the vote-by-mail system, and a voter information campaign would cost approximately $52 million.
Elections Canada said it has since acquired some safety materials from a Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada stockpile at no cost.
At this point, Elections Canada says the overall cost is unpredictable and will depend on the status of the pandemic.
Inflation and a growing population
There are other factors that Elections Canada has little to no control over, including additional eligible voters, says Mayrand.
“I suspect we’ll see close to a million more electors in the previous election,” he said.
Mayrand suggested population growth is one contributing factor, as well as more people reaching the voting age.
Another factor is inflation.
This election campaign is unique because it’s being held during a period of rising inflation, which is likely to increase the bottom line, Mayrand points out.
Elections Canada also relies on service providers like telecommunications companies for wifi and Canada Post to mail out voter cards and special ballots. The costs of those services can change election to election.
Legislative changes are another outlier. For example, by the 2015 election, 30 new ridings had been added to the electoral map, which is part of the reason for the $170 million price increase from 2011 to 2015.
Another contributor was the length of that election. At 78 days, it was the longest in recent history.
Main costs of running an election
In every election, what tends to cost the most is paying workers and renting office space for returning officers in 338 ridings and sites for 20,000 temporary polling stations.
“Elections Canada during an election probably has the largest number of points of service of any organization,” said Mayrand.
By comparison, McDonald’s has around 1,400 locations across the country.
Other costs include supplies needed to set up polling stations such as computers, phones, signs, pencils and ballots.
Consider the price of a regular ballot. It costs approximately seven cents for a piece of ballot paper and roughly 10 cents to print each one, depending on the number of candidates and the riding location, for example.
Elections Canada says as many as 40 million ballots could be printed for this election.
At 17 cents per ballot, that’s a cost of $6.8 million alone.
Why so many ballots? Ballots are ordered for every elector, not just those expected to vote. Elections Canada doesn’t redistribute unused ballots from advance polls because they are sealed with other paperwork until counting begins on election night.
Where the money comes from
So who pays for it? Taxpayers.
The chief electoral officer has financial authority to draw directly from the federal government’s consolidated revenue fund to ensure that Elections Canada can respond to an election call at any time, and to remain independent from the government of the day.
That fund is made up of taxes and other revenue streams the government collects, like fees and fines.
The chief electoral officer doesn’t need pre-approval from Parliament, except for money reserved to pay the salaries of permanent employees.
“If we want to safeguard our democracy and have a really healthy, robust democracy, then we are going to have to spend money to ensure that we have high quality elections,” said Garnett.
Want to know more about the cost of running an election? Watch the video above.
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