On by-elections

A very interesting difference exists between Canada and the United Kingdom when it comes to the matter of calling by-elections.

A by-election occurs when a seat in the House becomes vacant furing the course of a parliament because the MP has resigned, passed away, or the incumbent becomes ineligible to continue in office. When this happens, an election is called in that constituency only, to fill the seat. It is possible to hold more than one by-elections on the same day if there are several vacancies to fill.

By-election procedure to fill a vacancy in the Canadian House of Commons

Under the Parliament of Canada Act, when a seat in the House is vacant, the Speaker of the House of Commons informs the Chief Electoral Officer by means of a Speaker’s warrant. If the Speaker is absent, or if it is the Speaker’s seat that is vacant, two members of the House of Commons may address the warrant to the Chief Electoral Officer.

After receiving the warrant, section 57 of the Canada Elections Act authorizes the Governor in Council to fix the date on which the Chief Electoral Officer is to issue the writ. The date of issuance must fall between the 11th and 180th days after the Chief Electoral Officer receives the warrant from the Speaker (or the two members of the House). The Governor in Council also fixes the date for election day, which cannot be earlier than 36 days after the Chief Electoral Officer issues the writ. (source: Elections Canada)

The “Governor in Council” referred to above is the Governor General, acting on the advice of the federal cabinet. In other words, it is actually the Cabinet (and in reality, the Prime Minister) which decides the date for the issuance of the writ. The earliest date possible for a by-election is 11 days after the Chief Electoral Officer receives the warrant from the Speaker. The latest date possible is 180 days – in other words, six months – after the warrant is received. The actual number of days the seat might remain vacant can exceed that, however, since the official countdown begins only after the Chief Electoral Officer receives the Speaker’s warrant announcing the vacancy, and not when the seat is actually vacated by the MP. As well, the date for the by-election cannot be earlier than 36 days after the CEO issues the writ. The Parliament of Canada Act (section 28) states that when a vacancy occurs:

“the Speaker of the House shall, without delay, (…) address a warrant of the Speaker to the Chief Electoral Officer for the issue of a writ for the election of a member to fill the vacancy.”

And going by the chart below, the Speaker’s warrants are issued very soon after the seat becomes vacant. The delay can occur at the next stage in the process – waiting for the Governor in Council – the Prime Minister – to choose an actual date for the by-election to be held. Sometimes, the PM won’t delay to announce the date. In other cases, they may put off the decision as long as they possibly can.

By-election procedure to fill a vacancy in the UK House of Commons

Traditionally the Chief Whip of the political party whose MP held the vacant seat will begin the procedure for a by-election. This is known as ‘moving the Writ’ and takes the form of a motion in the House of Commons. This isn’t always how things proceed, however. For example, in the case of the 2010 by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth, a seat which Labour had won in the 2010 election, it was the Liberal Democrats who moved the writ. The Labour candidate had been stripped of his seat by the courts which declared his victory void because he had knowingly made false statements attacking his Liberal Democrat opponent’s personal character during the 2010 general election.

A new Writ is moved within three months of the vacancy occurring. There have been a few instances of seats remaining vacant longer than six months before a by-election was called. Seats have also been left vacant towards the end of a Parliament to be filled at the general election. If there are several vacant seats then a number of by-elections can take place on the same day. (source: UK Parliament website)

Because the timing of a by-election is decided by the party which held the seat when the vacancy occurs, by-elections in the UK tend to occur quite quickly since the party is anxious to see if it can hold the seat.

The following charts look at by-elections called in the current parliaments in both Canada and the UK.

By-elections Canada, current parliament (since May 2011)

 

Constituency Date of Vacancy Date of Notice of Vacancy Date of Writ of By-election Date of By-election # of days seat vacant
Labrador 14 Mar 2013 19 Mar 2013 7 Apr 2013 13 May 2013 60
Victoria 31 Aug 2012 6 Sep 2012 21 Oct 2012 26 Nov 2012 87
Durham 31 Jul 2012 1 Aug 2012 21 Oct 2012 26 Nov 2012 118
Calgary-Centre 30 May 2012 12 Jun 2012 21 Oct 2012 26 Nov 2012 180
Toronto-Danforth 22 Aug 2011 30 Aug 2011 6 Feb 2012 19 Mar 2012 210
Average # of days seat vacant 131

UK By-elections, current parliament (since May 2010)

 

Constituency Date of Vacancy Date of Writ Date of By-election # of days seat vacant
South Shields 12 Apr 2013 15 Apr 2013 2 May 2013 20
Mid-Ulster 2 Jan 2013 11 Feb 2013 7 Mar 2013 64
Eastleigh 5 Feb 2013 7 Feb 2013 28 Feb 2013 23
Croydon-North 29 Sep 2012 8 Nov 2012 29 Nov 2012 61
Middlesborough 13 Oct 2012 8 Nov 2012 29 Nov 2012 47
Rotherham 5 Nov 2012 8 Nov 2012 29 Nov 2012 24
Cardiff South and Penarth 22 Oct 2012 23 Oct 2012 15 Nov 2012 24
Corby 29 Aug 2012 23 Oct 2012 15 Nov 2012 78
Manchester Central 22 Oct 2012 23 Oct 2012 15 Nov 2012 23
Bradford West 2 Mar 2012 6 Mar 2012 29 Mar 2012 27
Feltham and Heston 10 Nov 2011 25 Nov 2011 15 Dec 2011 35
Inverclyde 9 May 2011 8 Jun 2011 30 Jun 2011 52
Belfast West 26 Jan 2011 17 May 2011 9 Jun 2011 134
Leicester South 1 Apr 2011 6 Apr 2011 5 May 2011 34
Barnsley Central 8 Feb 2011 9 Feb 2011 3 Mar 2011 23
Oldham East and Saddleworth 5 Nov 2010 16 Dec 2010 13 Jan 2011 69
Average # of days seat vacant 46

If you’d like to see how the moving of a Writ plays out, you can watch the procedure for the by-election in Eastleigh from 7 February 2013. It doesn’t take very long – about a minute (it ends at the 9:35 mark).

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