Parliament Hill. Image: Naveen Kumar/Unsplash

As the country heads into a pandemic election, knowing how to vote, where to cast your ballot, and voting safely are more important than ever for first-time voters.

The other battle is deciding who to vote for.

Rather than voting for a party or a Prime Minister, voters are casting their ballot for their local Member of Parliament (MP). The candidates, who typically run under a party banner, are vying to represent their electoral district, known as a constituency or riding.

The candidate with the most votes will secure their spot as MP, even if they earn less than 50 per cent of the overall vote. That’s thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system we use in Canada, one Justin Trudeau promised to change when he first ran for prime minister in 2015, but has since given up on.

That system doesn’t reward the majority of voters (AKA the popular vote), but rather, the majority of districts where an MP is elected. In the last federal election, the Conservative Party won the popular vote (the most votes overall) while the Liberals garnered the most seats. No party even reached 40 per cent of the vote share.

Since Canada has 338 ridings, it takes 170 seats to win a majority government. When no party reaches the threshold, as was the case in 2019, we have a hung parliament, and can expect to have a minority government. However, the party that has the most amount of seats does not automatically form government. The sitting prime minister — in this case, Trudeau — has a right to introduce a Throne Speech. If the speech is supported with 170 votes, then the sitting prime minister remains in his or her position, with the support of one or more other parties. For example, should the Conservatives win a plurality of seats, but fall short of a majority, any or all of the NDP, Green, or Bloc could agree to support a Liberal government, instead. It is perfectly feasible for a party to govern in a minority, or coalition, from second place position. 

In minority governments, the party with the most seats must rely on votes from other parties to pass legislation, adopt budgets, and to express confidence or non-confidence in the government. If the minority government loses the non-confidence vote, it may result in triggering an election, or, the governor general could request one of the other party leaders to form government instead. 

The other way an election is triggered during a minority government is for the prime minister to request that government be dissolved — as Trudeau did on August 16 — triggering a snap election (meaning an election that occurs before the government’s mandated term of four years is up).

While polling often fails to correctly predict voting outcomes, current national projections suggest no party will reach 170 seats. 

How to vote

Most eligible voters will receive a Voter Information Card (VIC) delivered with their mail. The VIC not only gives you suggested nearby voting locations, but also the information you need to register at the ballot box.

The VIC’s provide a polling location not just on election day, but also for advanced voting taking place between September 10 and 14. Voters can also cast their ballot at their local returning office before September 14. Once advanced polls close, voters will have to wait until election day to cast their ballot.

Most VIC’s will arrive in the mail by September 10. If you didn’t get one, chances are you’re not registered to vote or the information on your VIC is out of date.

Not to fear: If you didn’t receive a Voter Information Card, you can still vote. Elections Canada also has an online Voter Registration Service to update voter information.

Really, the VIC is more of a “fast pass” to help cast your ballot more efficiently, as voters don’t need to be registered prior to Election Day to vote.

In an email, Elections Canada said they’ve made a number of improvements to help make voting more accessible for first-time voters.

“Any elector may now apply online to vote by mail and receive a voting kit that includes a pre-addressed return envelope with pre-paid postage,” Elections Canada wrote.

Another way to vote is by special ballot. In situations where voters may be working or studying away from home, special ballots give these voters the option to cast their vote for a representative back home. Special ballot applications can be completed on Elections Canada’s website or in person at a local returning office. The deadline to apply for a special ballot is September 14.

The Elections Canada website is a hub for supports and resources voters need to cast their ballot. Simply by entering your postal code, the site can show you your riding, where to vote, a list of candidates in your riding, and your riding map.

The most important thing is to be safe. No one should have to jeopardize their health or safety to cast a vote. Let’s not make this election a super-spreader.

For more information, give Elections Canada a call at 1-800-463-6868.

Should I vote strategically?

The act of strategic voting often comes up when elections are close. Strategic voting happens when a voter decides not to cast their ballot based on who they believe the best candidate would be, instead casting their ballot for the candidate they think can prevent an candidate they want to avoid from taking office. Basing your vote on who you don’t want rather than who aligns with your values is a bleak way to approach a democracy. By voting your values, even if you’re the only voter in your community with a candidate’s sign, society gets a better idea of what you believe in, not what you’re afraid of.

Finding where you vote fits

There are a number of surveys and interactive features online that can determine where your political stripe primarily lies by asking you to rank the significance of a series of political subjects to you. While some are more accurate than others, I’d suggest a more conventional approach.

Each party has their platform available on their website, highlighting the best of what they have to offer. But hidden in the fine print of those snazzy brochures is a more detailed and specific party plan that can be downloaded to your computer.

While those long-form party plans are often over 100 pages, there’s also a shortcut you can use to find what matters most to you: you can search for keywords in the document like “dental care,” “pandemic relief,” or “affordable housing” to be directed to each use of the term.

If you choose to vote in person, remember to bring backup forms of ID (just in case), a water bottle, a mask, hand sanitizer, and a granola bar. While voting typically takes 10 minutes or less, it’s best to come prepared for delays, particularly in this pandemic election.

Once your ballot is submitted, it will be counted with the remaining votes after polls close across the country on the evening of Election Day.

Congratulations on using your voice to make a difference at the ballot box! This first step of political participation not only helps increase voter turnout, but also communicates your values with your community to create meaningful change.

Stephen Wentzell is‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred stories.

Image: Naveen Kumar/Unsplash

Editor’s note, Monday, Sept. 13: A previous version of this story stated that the party who wins the most seats — but not enough to reach a minority government — will have the first crack at securing a governing position through a coalition government. Rather, the sitting prime minister and his or her government gets the first crack at forming government, regardless of whether they have the most seats or not. Additionally, this story previously stated that party seat counts may be low enough that coalition governments are out of the question and that in that scenario, Canadians would return to the polls. In fact, coalition governments are never out of the question, and multiple parties can in fact join together to form government. Lastly, this story previously stated that in the event of the government losing a non-confidence vote, a minority election is triggered. In fact, this is only one of the scenarios that might take place after a vote of non-confidence in the government. We regret the errors, and the story has been updated accordingly. 

Monday, Sept. 20: The headline of this story has been updated for Election Day. 

Image: Gilad Cohen

Stephen Wentzell

Stephen Wentzell is‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred...