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When Canadians vote on May 2, they'll be paying for a federal election whose cost has grown 50 per cent in the past decade, thanks in large part to the money given to political parties.

This year's election is expected to cost $300-million - up from $198-million in 2000.

The amount spent by Elections Canada covers everything it takes to rev up a cross-country electoral machine at the drop of a writ - from hiring and training about 200,000 people, many of whom will only be needed for a day or two, to renting polling stations and conducting campaigns to boost voter turnout (which dropped to only 59 per cent in 2008).

But changes to financing and reimbursement rules in the past decade have inflated the amounts channelled to political parties from the public purse. The amount Elections Canada paid out to reimburse parties for campaign costs more than doubled between 2000 and 2008.

Elections Canada doesn't publish detailed breakdowns of each election's cost. But budgetary filings for each fiscal year give a good indication of where election-year money is going, including the $450 spent on lost BlackBerrys for 2008.

The $300-million that Elections Canada expects the 2011 contest to cost works out to about $12.50 per eligible Canadian voter, which is comparable to recent provincial elections. It's difficult to compare the costs of delivering an election in different systems - in U.S. federal elections, the administrative work is divvied among each of the 50 states. But it costs the U.K. Justice Ministry far less to fill the British House of Commons: the U.K.'s 2010 election cost an estimated £84.6-million - about $132-million Canadian, or $2.80 per eligible British voter.

Canada's chief electoral officer holds a uniquely independent financial position: He or she can draw funds without Parliament's approval in advance. Elections Canada doesn't have an annual budget because the onset of a sudden campaign can throw long-term financial plans out the window.

That's the way it should be, former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley says. "You're effectively setting up an operation which is four times the size of the Canadian armed forces" in terms of manpower, he said.

Elections Canada is also much more autonomous than similar bodies in the United States or Britain, and its jurisdiction is broader.

"Elections Canada is very, very powerful in comparison to the parties, both in terms of how much is budgeted and also how many employees it has," said Pauline Beange, a University of Toronto doctoral candidate whose dissertation relates to party fundraising and election spending.

It's hard to say whether Canada's election money is well spent, Ms. Beange says, because "nobody's really asked, 'Are our elections run efficiently?' We know we have a terrific reputation for clean elections. Do they need to cost as much as they do? Nobody's ever looked at that."

Mr. Kingsley argues elections are only costly if you're doing it wrong.

"I always looked upon the money being expended on elections as an investment in how we define ourselves as a democracy. … That's where I, as a citizen, stand up and say, 'This is who I want to run this place on my behalf.' "

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