Proposed Municipal Election Expense Limits in BC Would Stifle Third Parties

A Special Committee of the British Columbia legislature has recommended election advertising limits for municipal elections that would effectively prohibit political advertising by third parties during election campaigns in smaller communities.

The Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits published its final report on June 26th. The Committee was appointed to examine, inquire into and make recommendations to the Legislative Assembly on expense limit amounts for candidates and third party advertisers in local elections.

In summary, the Committee recommended that there be a single expense limit for jurisdictions with a population less than 10,000, a limit based on population for jurisdictions with a population over 10,000, and a limit on third parties set at 5% of the limit for mayoral candidates, as follows:

– in jurisdictions with a population less than 10,000, mayoral candidates have an expense limit of $10,000 and candidates for all other locally elected offices have an expense limit of $5,000;

– in jurisdictions with a population of 10,000 or more, mayoral candidates have an expense limit of $1 per capita for the first 15,000 population, $0.55 per capita for 15,000 to 150,000 population, $0.60 per capita for 150,000 to 250,000 and $0.15 per capita thereafter;

– in jurisdictions with a population of 10,000 or more, candidates for all other locally elected offices have an expense limit of: $0.50 per capita for the first 15,000 population, $0.28 per capita for 15,000 to 150,000 population, $0.30 per capita for 150,000 to 250,000 population and $0.08 per capita thereafter; and

– third party advertisers have an expense limit of 5 percent of the expense limit of a mayoral candidate in municipal elections or 5 percent of the expense limit of a candidate in those races
where there is no mayoral candidate (e.g., for school trustee or regional electoral area director)
and that $150,000 be an overarching, cumulative limit.

It is now up to the BC legislature whether to accept, modify or reject these recommendations for the 2018 local government elections.

The greatest concern I have with these recommendations is the expense limit proposed for third parties in small communities. The limit is so low that it effectively prevents third parties from being involved in the political discourse in a meaningful way.

In my view there is a high risk that a court would rule that the proposed limits on third parties are an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of expression.

Here is what the Committee had to say about its recommendation for third party election expense limits being set at 5% of the mayoral limits:

“The Committee concluded that 5 percent was a reasonable expense limit amount for third party advertisers. It would permit third parties to effectively communicate their views on elections issues to the electorate but not in such a way that the voices of candidates could not also be heard.”

In a jurisdiction with a population of less than 10,000, the limit for third parties will be $500. That might not be even enough to purchase one ad in the local paper, let alone be anywhere near enough to effectively communicate their views. You can barely buy a single printed banner for that amount.

In a community with a population of 15,000, the third party limit rises to a meager $750.

In the larger communities, at least third parties can place at least one single ad in a local newspaper, but the limits (based on 2011 data) are still very stingy:

Kamloops, population 89,417: mayoral limit $55,929.35, third party limit $2,796.47
Burnaby, population 233,734: mayoral limit $139,490.40, third party limit $6,974.55
Surrey, population 513,322: mayoral limit $188,748.30, third party limit $9,437.42

Whether the BC legislature adopts the proposed limits on third parties is something that I will be watching closely.

What do you think about the proposed expense limits for local government elections in BC? Are the limits needed? Are they too high, too low, or just right? Share your views in the comments section below.

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