Here is the full text of my submission to the B.C. Government's Special Committee on Local Election Expense Limits. The deadline for public submission is today.
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The committee may recall that in January, 2014, I submitted a brief on the question of campaign-expense limits. With the new call for submissions on the subject, the deadline for which is December 5, 2014, I feel compelled to restate my opinion on the subject, which I will do today.
As well, I will add to it in response to the increasing calls to ban corporate and union donations. In short, I oppose expense limits and I oppose banning corporate and union donations.
First, though, let me state that, If there are to be new campaign-expense rules, I believe that the Province should set expense limits and that Elections BC should enforce the limits. This body is already involved in election monitoring; enforcing campaign-expenditure rules would be a natural extension of its current work.
Furthermore, if expense limits are enacted, they should apply in school-board elections. It’s only fair to have them applied to the election of trustees as well as mayors and councillors.
As well, population size should be taken into account in setting expense limits. Moreover, if there are to be limits, they must take into account not only the population of the jurisdiction, but also the physical size.
A candidate running for office in a town of 10,000 that is concentrated into one square kilometre would likely have an easier time reaching voters during a campaign than a candidate in a community of 10,000 that is spread over a 100-square-kilometre area. The former might be able to easily hand-deliver flyers, for example, while the latter might have to employ a more expensive delivery method, such as Canada Post.
Finally, if there are to be expense limits, they should apply not only to candidates, but also elector organizations and third-party advertisers. If there is to be a new regulatory system, then it seems fair to have it applied to all aforementioned groups.
A question of free speech
Irrespective of the above, I actually oppose the concept of campaign-expense limits. I believe such restrictions would infringe on fundamental freedoms as found in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 2. I quote:
“Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
- freedom of conscience and religion;
- freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
- freedom of peaceful assembly; and
- freedom of association.”
Specifically, I believe that any restriction on campaign spending would be a direct attack on Section 2.2, “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media communication.”
Allow me to explain: Since the major part of one’s campaign involves communicating with the electorate, and since such communication involves the transmission of thoughts, beliefs, opinions and expressions through the press and other forms of communication such as flyers and posters, a restriction on campaign spending would have the effect of restricting the “fundamental right” of an individual to engage in that communication.
I understand that “reasonable restrictions” to Charter rights have been enacted, but I do not believe that something (an election campaign) that involves two such fundamental aspects of our democracy – free elections and free speech – should face the sort of restrictions being considered in the current exercise.
If a citizen decides to spend her life savings on an advertising campaign to support a civic cause or oppose a candidate, then let it be. If a candidate feels that being elected is so vital that he must take out a second mortgage to pay for a massive advertising campaign, then so be it. What’s important in both cases is that these people have the full and unfettered right to participate in democracy.
Practical objection to spending limits
Here, my objection to campaign-spending limits comprises related issues: unfair obstacles that such limits put in the way of new candidates; unfair obstacles that such limits put in the way of lone or unaffiliated candidates.
First, the new candidate. It’s a given that name recognition plays a large role in all politics, but it is an especially significant factor at the municipal level. For the new candidate, the biggest challenge is not only getting his or her platform in front of voters; it’s also—and, arguably, more importantly—getting his or her name known. Either way, one sure-fire way of presenting oneself to voters is to spend money on advertising, signage and other promotional devices. It’s less important for incumbents to “put their name out there” because they are already relatively well-known.
But campaign-spending limits would fetter a new candidate’s ability to spend freely to have his or her name become as well-known as an incumbent’s. Therefore, I submit that campaign-spending limits would have the unintended consequence of diminishing the opportunity for electoral success for newcomers, while favouring incumbents.
Second, the lone or non-affiliated candidate. Consider the situation facing the lone, non-affiliated candidate who is running against a candidate or candidates from a well-organized campaign slate, party or endorsement mechanism. In all likelihood, that lone candidate does not have an “election machine” supporting his or her candidacy—no supporter lists to work from, and no election-day teams to “get out the vote,” for example.
What such a lone candidate would have the ability to do, however, is to match or even exceed the campaign spending of his or her rivals. But if that spending were limited by force of law, that lone candidate would face an unfair restriction on one of the only ways by which he or she might be able to achieve a level playing field.
We need to look deeper into the mechanics of a well-organized party, slate or endorsement body to truly appreciate the advantage they would be given over independent candidates should campaign-spending limits be put in place. Such bodies can attract many volunteers and often have extensive lists of possible supporters for those volunteers to call by phone, contact by email, or send letters to. With voter turnout for municipal elections being relatively low, these well-organized campaigns give their candidates a very tangible edge over any independent candidate.
This situation is both legal and fair under the current system because non-affiliated candidates always have the option to counter the “election machine” they are facing by spending more money on advertisements, automatic phone calls, and the like.
That leveler disappears in a universe of campaign-spending limits, however. Such limits would not likely place any limit on the number of volunteers working for parties, slates or endorsement bodies, nor would they place any limit on the amount of hours those volunteers could work. But they would limit the opportunities for non-affiliated candidates to level the field by spending extra funds to buy advertising and otherwise promote their candidacy.
In conclusion, I would argue that a campaign-expense limit would have the unintended consequence of handicapping both new and lone, independent or non-affiliated candidates, while inadvertently giving incumbents and slate- or party-backed candidates an advantage.
Therefore, practically speaking, campaign-expense limitations would be unfair.
I understand that many individuals and organizations are calling for a ban on all corporate and union donations. I do not support this call for reasons that echo some of my positions, above. I believe that the banning of such donations would have the effect of hamstringing lone, independent or new candidates. This is because those organizations or incumbents that have extensive lists of committed supporters and volunteers would have a big head start when seeking donations, as they would be able to immediately tap into an already-existing database of likely individual donors.
On the other hand, the new candidate or the lone, independent one would have no such existing database and would be severely handicapped in his or her fundraising efforts.
I believe that there would be less concern over corporate and union donations if voters were given full and timely information about the source of all campaign donations. On this subject, at present, campaign-donation documents need not be filed until several months after the campaign has ended. I believe that the Provincial Government should examine the feasibility of establishing a real-time, campaign-donation-reporting mechanism to enable voters to have access to information on the source of a candidate’s funds before they cast their ballots, not after.
One other idea that might be considered is to place special limits or reporting requirements on candidates who receive donations from corporations or unions with which the candidates’ city has a direct and ongoing contractual/financial relationship. I am thinking here of companies such as private garbage-collection services, and unions such as those that represent city workers.
I personally will not accept donations from such organizations because of the appearance of conflicted loyalties or interests. On the other hand, I have no difficulty accepting a donation from a corporate citizen that, like my neighbor, does business from time to time in the city, or even does business on a continual basis. As long as there is not a direct and ongoing contractual/financial relationship, this is acceptable.
Thank you for the opportunity to present this advice. These are important issues and deserve careful consideration.
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