With the passage of Bill C-76 in December 2018, a number of important changes to the Canadian Elections Act will come into effect this election cycle. Let’s take a look at the changes, and how they might affect campaign planning.
Limits to 3rd party spending in elections are nothing new. In Canada, there have been limits on 3rd party campaign spending during the writ period for more than a decade. The limit for the last election was about $211,000 nationally or about $4,200 per riding. However, that limit only applied to advertising (TV, radio, print & paid online promotion) – not to activities such as GOTV organizing, member mobilization or creating organic social media content.
The new rules regulate election-related activities a lot earlier and encompass a wider range of activities.
Starting on June 30th and continuing until the writ drop, a new “pre-election period” introduces rules around Partisan Advertising, Partisan Activity, and Election Surveys.
Partisan Advertising is any advertising that supports or opposes a party or candidate during the pre-election period. This puts an explicit limit on ads designed to define a candidate/party leader – a key tactic in traditional independent expenditure campaigns.
Partisan Activity is a new category covering any activity that promotes or opposes a party or candidate from June 30th to E-Day. This includes things like having a website with content that is critical or supportive of a party, organic social media content, texting, phoning, canvassing, communicating with members of your organization as well as the public, holding events (even for your own members), and similar activities that promote/oppose a candidate/party.
This new category is pretty wide-ranging and will require organizations like labour unions to either account for and report such expenses – or to restrict their communication and member engagement to non-partisan or issue-based messaging during an election.
Finally, an Election Survey is any survey (a.k.a. opinion poll) fielded between June 30 and E-Day that in any way shapes or affects your partisan activity or advertising, including whether or not to engage in those things. Any such research tool has to be counted under the spending limit.
Pre-election period spending is limited to $700,000 plus a $323,400 inflation adjustment (for a total of $1,023,400, also limited to $10,234 per riding). While a million dollars sounds like a lot, it’s a relatively meagre amount for an impactful national persuasion campaign.
Spending during the election period (writ drop to E-Day) is limited to $350,000 plus $161,700 inflation adjustment for a total of $511,700 (also limited to $4,386 per riding). All regulated activities must be paid for using funds from Canadian sources.
Election advertising continues to be regulated during the election period. This includes any advertising that supports or opposes a party or candidate or issue with which they are associated. In the pre-election period, issue advertising is not regulated.
Sounds like the new rules are pretty draconian. So what does this mean in terms of tactics that you can use?
If you’re going to communicate with your existing membership about candidates/parties, make sure every communication is an effective one. This election cycle is a great time to re-examine your organization’s tactics and make sure they’re the best use of your spending limit. Is that letter from your union president to members actually moving votes? Does a campaign on an issue that’s not voters’ top concern actually have an impact? Now is the time to ask these tough questions.
Canadian organizations can contribute as much as they wish to other third party organizations for election-related activities. An organization can spend its $1.5M limit on member engagement, and also contribute unlimited additional funds to an independent organization who then conducts its own election-related campaign, independent of the first organization.
Issue ads are exempt during the pre-election period. While the million-dollar pre-election spending limit does capture Partisan Advertising, an ad that doesn’t support or oppose a candidate or party doesn’t fall under that spending limit. So issue advocacy campaigns can spend as much as they wish prior to the writ being dropped.
Finally, there are a number of voter outreach & mobilization tactics that have limited impact on spending limits. For example, the value of organic social media (content that doesn’t have a placement cost) produced in-house that promotes/opposes a candidate/party is the total staff time and overhead spent on it. So too with organizing volunteers for partisan GOTV activities – the value is the total staff time and overhead spent organizing the activity.
The new rules put some challenges in front of progressive organizations who want to have an impact during this election cycle. But with proper planning, there’s lots of room to do effective advocacy and organizing work – and to make sure we elect a progressive government in Ottawa.
Rachel Roy is a partner at Allevato Quail & Roy, a boutique law firm specializing in campaign law.
Michael Roy is Principal of Spark Strategies, a boutique Canadian campaigns firm.
This article is presented for informational purposes only. Please seek legal advice about your specific campaign plans.