Election reform advocates have been trying to get some serious changes made to the ways we vote and run political campaigns for years, but chances are that they were not the audience the Government of Ontario was thinking about today with changes to the Elections Act. The Attorney General announced the Protecting Ontario Elections Act on Thursday, and he says it’s meant to protect elections from outside interference.
“We strongly believe that Ontario voters should determine the outcome of elections, not big corporations or unions, American-style political action groups or other outside influences,” said Doug Downey in a statement. “That’s why we are proposing legislative action to protect Ontarians’ essential voice in campaigns and to make it easier to cast a vote safely in an advance poll or on election day. These amendments would help modernize Ontario’s electoral process and ensure it is updated to meet urgent challenges, including COVID-19.”
The bill offers 19 amendments including 10 advanced voting days, new rules for social media use during the writ period, and a change to third-party advertising that will force advocacy groups to spend the same amount of money over a 12 month period prior to the election versus the six months the law currently states. According to the government’s media release, this last part is the most essential change to the election laws.
“Elections Ontario has reported that the scale of third-party advertising in Ontario is greater than at the federal level, and Ontario is the only province in Canada where third-party spending is counted in the millions of dollars, rather than in the thousands,” according the statement. “In 2018, third parties spent over $5 million during the election period and the six months prior to the election.”
Much of that money was directed at ads against the Progressive Conservatives, but it’s another money issue in the law that got Guelph MP Mike Schreiner’s attention. Among the amendments is a change to the cap for individual donations, an increase from $1,650 to $3,300 per year, and that’s for candidate, constituency association, leadership contestant or a party. The government calls it “protecting the essential voice of Ontarians in campaigns.”
“While I welcome the increased funding access for independent candidates, I’m concerned the changes to donation limits will bring more big money into Ontario politics,” Schreiner said in his statement. “Doug Ford’s Elections Act changes open the door to pay to play politics. Most people don’t have $9,900 to donate politically — $3,300 to a party, $3,300 to a riding association and $3,300 to a campaign.”
This is the latest election change undertaken by the Government of Ontario. Last fall, Queen’s Park scrapped the ability of municipalities to initiate ranked balloting in local elections, and the Ford government famously began with an amendment to the City of Toronto Act to reduce the number of council seats from 47 to 25. Downey assures us though that his intentions are pure.
“Each and every Ontarian is a driving force of our democracy – from casting their votes to volunteering on campaigns or putting one’s name on a ballot,” said Downey. “We want to ensure that the electoral system continues to evolve to protect their central role as individuals and promote fairness in the electoral process for everyone.”