If Canadians ever wonder why some of our elections seem so devoid of competition, including over ideas, we just received an example again from five by-elections. They took place on Monday—two in Ontario, one in Quebec and two in Alberta. The candidates were themselves subject to the usual, cheap spending limits imposed by the federal government.
As an example, consider Markham-Thornhill in Ontario, the only truly contestable riding among the five by-elections (the Liberal, Mary Ng, won by 2,300 votes; the other ridings had lopsided results). There, a candidate could spend $106,902 trying to get elected. With 69,838 eligible voters, that’s $1.53 per potential voter.
In addition, if a candidate was attached to a political party, the party could spend $91,020. (A party with candidates in all five by-elections and with total allowable expenses of $455,102 could theoretically spend all that in one riding; let’s assume the money was spent equally in all.)
That $91,020 equates to another $1.30 per eligible voter, or $2.83 in total. The numbers are similar for the other four ridings. In general elections, the limits on what candidates and parties can spend per voter will vary depending on the campaign’s length and a riding’s geography, but not by much.
As Elections Canada notes, the usual justification for expense restrictions is to “facilitate a level playing field among candidates.” To be fair, the agency is following the Canada Elections Act, so the problem originates with successive federal governments that wrote and kept the legislated limits—in effect, gag laws on political expression during election campaigns.
This “level playing field” defence is nonsense. Limits on campaign expenses do the opposite of what is intended; they give the advantage to the well-known and the politically connected.
For example, suppose one candidate in a riding has significant name recognition and the backing of an established political party. To impose election expense limits on another candidate, an unknown independent, is to handicap the possibility for an upset victory. The only way to overcome that disadvantage is to raise and spend much more money in an effort to become known. Our federal election legislation instead squelches such potential political competition.
Then there is the issue of limits on so-called “third parties,” a pejorative label for Canadians who might care to participate in elections by promoting ideas and policies as opposed to working through political machines. Those citizens’ groups have much lower spending limits under federal law. In the recent by-elections, such groups were prevented from spending more than $4,164 per riding. That amount might pay for a few thousand flyers and some social media ads. It was also less than four cents per voter in Markham-Thornhill, for example.
Voters who might care about the environment, taxes, small business or any number of conceivable issues and interests, and who wish to band together with others to promote their issue, are in essence told by the political class to sit down and be quiet; Canadians are told to leave elections to the political professionals—the parties, candidates and machines. The current federal law thus shields incumbents and the politically well connected; it also asphyxiates the free flow of ideas during elections.
At the core of all this ostensible concern about “too much money” spent on campaigns is the vague notion that “big money” would otherwise buy politicians and government policy.
Here, some might point to the supposed negative example of American politics where billions are spent in presidential elections. The insinuation is that the more money spent, the more potential exists for corruption.
Fact check: Corruption, clearly defined, is when a politician or civil servant accepts a bribe to change a law, or to award an undeserved contract. It is not when candidates and parties accept money to run campaigns—money which is necessary to reach tens of thousands of voters in a riding, or tens of millions of people in a general election campaign.
As long as donor names are disclosed, it is then subsequently clear if a politician or government later does something to favour an earlier donor and in a way not supported by the facts of a matter.
As for American spending on elections, the oft-heard claim of corruption—again, linked simply to spending on elections and not actual corrupt practices—is mistaken.
Take one of the more expensive presidential campaigns in recent history, the 2012 contest between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and former president Barack Obama. Romney’s campaign spent $992 million in the attempt to reach the White House; Obama’s side spent $985 million to win.
Such figures are often quoted as evidence that American electioneering should be reined in, Canadian-style. But that misreads the math. With a population of 315 million in 2012, and 215 million eligible voters, the Romney campaign spent $4.61 per potential voter with the Obama camp expending three cents less, $4.58.
In contrast, that same year, Americans spent $19 billion or $60.25 per American, on pet food for dogs and cats. Or divide the $19 billion by eligible voters and the figure is $88.37. That is 19 times the amount spent by each party, per voter, to win presidential votes in 2012. To allege that American parties spent too much on their presidential election in 2012, or any other year, one has to believe that spending a fraction of pet food expenses to reach 200-plus million people is unwarranted. Or that such spending is “excessive” even though outlays on other items—“Fido” and “Missy”—is significantly higher.
Back to Canada. The notion that candidates, political parties and citizens’ groups should be limited to $1.53, $1.30 and four cents per voter, respectively, sends this message from the political class to Canadians: In our liberal democracy, election expenses per voter cannot exceed the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Or for those who wish to advocate for ideas independent of a party—don’t spend more than a nickel.
Mark Milke is the author of Tax Me I’m Canadian: A Taxpayer’s Guide To Your Money and How Politicians Spend It. Follow him on Twitter at @MilkeMark.