Corp Comm Connects

Third-party election ads - Curb the spending

Weekend voting and June elections are proposed by Ontario chief electoral officer Greg Essensa but his best suggestion is limiting third-party advertising.
March 11, 2015

Voting on a weekend in spring instead of on a workday in October certainly has its attractions, starting with warmer weather on going to the polls. But a more obvious and urgent reform proposed by Greg Essensa, Ontario’s chief electoral officer, has to do with money.

His in-depth report on last year’s election was released Tuesday and includes several recommendations to improve the process. Most important among these is limiting spending by interest groups such as unions and business lobbies whose advertising clout has come to rival that of official political parties.

These so-called third-party organizations spent almost $9 million in an effort to sway last spring’s vote. Two elections earlier, in 2007, they spent just $1.8 million. This indicates a troubling increase in their activity.

Political parties and candidates are, quite rightly, subject to legal restrictions on what they can spend on campaign ads and on the contributions they’re allowed to accept. That’s meant to limit the degree to which money can be used to influence an election.

This protection is undermined when third-party organizations are utterly free to pump cash into ads promoting their interests. Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada that regulates third parties, requiring them to register with Elections Ontario, but doesn’t limit their spending on advertising.

“This lack of regulation is creating an uneven playing field that can potentially influence electoral outcomes,” Essensa warned.

The federal government has set a $188,000 cap on how much interest groups can spend. That’s enough to preserve freedom of speech. They don’t need to spend more to make their point.

But here in Ontario an anti-Progressive Conservative coalition called Working Families spent $2.5 million seeking to influence voters last spring. It was the province’s biggest third-party advertiser, followed by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, which spent $2.1 million. A tighter rein is needed.

On the matter of timing, Essensa’s suggestion that elections be held on weekends or on school holidays has grabbed headlines. So has his proposal to switch Ontario’s fixed date for voting from the first Thursday in October, every four years, to sometime in June. Such measures may result in a higher voter turnout and Queen’s Park should seriously consider them.

But Essensa’s call for tighter regulation of third-party advertising is more important to the overall health of democracy. It demands immediate action. Other jurisdictions have shown the way. We should follow suit.