On June 23rd, the province introduced new legislation governing provincial referendums, the election of senators, and municipal election financing. At first glance, the three initiatives may not appear connected; however, provincial referendums and senate elections can now be held at the same time as municipal elections. As a result, these changes could significantly affect upcoming municipal elections.
While many of the changes to the rules governing municipal elections defy explanation, the change getting the most attention is the one to municipal election financing. Under the new rules, the maximum donation limit will increase from $4,000 per individual donor to $5,000 per donor per candidate, with no limit on how many candidates any one donor can support.
The province states that, because this may make it easier for candidates with less name recognition to raise funds, it will level the playing field between incumbents and newcomers. Whether or not that is true, it will now be possible for one person to donate $5,000 to any number of candidates across electoral divisions in multiple municipalities. This creates a distinct advantage for wealthy individuals who hope to influence election outcomes. While money isn’t everything in an election campaign, this change stacks the deck against independent candidates who seek their support from “average” residents.
The Minister of Municipal Affairs, Kaycee Madu, rationalized the changes by saying that “unlike in the past where a particular developer or pro-development interest group could take over an entire municipal election in one particular municipality because they’ve got the money to do that” the proposed changes will “help do the reverse [because] more people across the province will be able to donate money to multiple candidates.”
From our perspective, the changes are more likely to facilitate rather than reverse the problem he claims to be addressing. We are also struggling to understand how the playing field is leveled by facilitating donations from “people from across the province” to multiple candidates in many different municipalities. Wouldn’t it make more sense to restrict donations to ratepayers in the municipality where the candidates are running? Local elections are supposed to be about local issues.
Using Rocky View’s nine electoral divisions as an example, under the current donation limits, Mr. X can contribute a maximum of $4,000. If he wants to support a slate of nine candidates, he can donate $444 to each of them, or some other distribution that totals no more than $4,000 overall. Under the new rules, Mr. X will be able to donate up to $5,000 to each of the nine candidates, for a total of $45,000. To put this into perspective, in the 2017 election only 5 candidates spent more than $10,000. Six candidates spent $5,000 or less on their entire campaigns.
The province is also proposing to shorten the active campaign period for municipal elections from six weeks to four weeks. This change will also provide a significant advantage to candidates with more money. Reaching the same number of people over a shortened campaign period takes more resources – both human and financial. Candidates with more funding will be able to purchase higher profile advertising and hire “volunteers” to knock on doors.
The current legislation includes an option for municipalities to require all candidates to disclose their donors before an election – a provision that significantly improves transparency and accountability. The province is now eliminating that provision.
We believe that voters have the right to know where each candidate’s funding comes from before they cast their ballots. With the removal of effective donation limits, this becomes that much more important. Understanding who contributed to a campaign after the election is too late – It’s closing the barn door after the horse has left. To think that control of local governments should be sold to the highest bidder while voters are kept in the dark is incomprehensible in a democratic country.
The rules governing third party advertisers’ involvement in local elections will also be loosened. Under the current legislation, third party advertising is regulated whenever they spend more than $1,000. The proposed amendments will eliminate any oversight before May 1st of an election year. As a result, third party advertisers will be able to spend whatever they want, with no disclosure requirements, promoting and/or opposing candidates from now until April 30th – another change that is bound to disadvantage independent grassroots candidates.
From our perspective, some of the rationales for these changes are questionable. The suggestion that the $4,000 donation limit per individual is unworkable because it is impossible for candidates to verify if an individual is within their donation limit is laughable. Shouldn’t that be the responsibility of the individual donors, not the candidates? Even worse, eliminating the option to require pre-election disclosure of candidates’ sources of funding is being presented as cutting red-tape. The argument is that this will allow candidates to focus all their attention on campaigning. Any candidate who has enough donors to make pre-election disclosure an onerous task will almost certainly have staff to deal with such matters.
Referendum and Senate Elections
The province is significantly expanding the use of referendums and will permit senate elections and referendums to be held in conjunction with municipal elections. As it stands, referendums are limited to constitutional questions. Now, referendums will be permitted on any issue the provincial government chooses.
From a local governance perspective, these changes have severe drawbacks. Having all these votes at the same time may increase voter turnout – a good thing. However, there may be a high cost from holding referendum and/or senate votes at the same time as municipal elections. Local issues risk being drowned out by provincial matters. This is of particular concern given that the province has dramatically relaxed the third party advertising rules for province-wide referendums.
We share the concerns expressed by both the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) and the Association of Urban Municipalities of Alberta (AUMA) – local elections should be reserved for local issues. Burdening municipal elections with referendums and/or senate elections, both of which will be heavily advertised, risks having important local choices overshadowed by province-wide issues.
The province has indicated that they are willing to consider amendments. You can send your views on these changes to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and your local MLAs – their contact information is listed below.
Minister of Municipal Affairs – Kaycee Madu: email@example.com
Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin: firstname.lastname@example.org
Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie: email@example.com
Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chestermere-Strathmore MLA Leela Aheer: email@example.com
NDP Municipal Affairs critic – Joe Ceci: firstname.lastname@example.org