B.C. legislation strengthens transparency, modernizes local election financing

THE B.C. Government is strengthening local election campaign financing rules to increase accountability and transparency for elections, ensuring people are at the centre of local politics.

The changes will modernize and strengthen the tools available to investigate and enforce campaign financing rules.

“In 2017, one of the government’s first initiatives was landmark legislation to put an end to big money in politics. We are continuing our work to make sure people are at the heart of decision-making,” said Josie Osborne, Minister of Municipal Affairs. “The changes we are proposing reflect the feedback we heard coming out of the 2018 local government elections, and they will make elections at the local government level more transparent and equitable for everyone.”

When passed, this legislation will strengthen local election campaign financing rules and will more closely align the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act rules with those established for provincial elections in the Election Act, while continuing to account for the unique nature of local elections. These changes include:

* establishing a pre-campaign period that increases the length of time election advertising is regulated from 29 days to 89 days;

* limiting sponsorship contributions to $1,200 to match the provincial campaign contribution limit set in 2017;

* requiring elector organizations to register with Elections BC; and

* providing Elections BC with new investigative tools to support investigations and additional penalties to fine people who do not comply with the new campaign financing rules.

Elector organizations, also known as civic or local political parties, will be required to register with Elections BC and complete annual financial reports just like provincial political parties. Elector organizations will be banned from accepting non-campaign contributions to pay for operational expenses, such as office supplies and staff salaries, in non-election years. This means they will have to fund all expenses through campaign contributions.

The legislation responds to analysis and consultation following the 2018 local government general elections. Key stakeholders were also consulted, such as:

* Elections BC;

* the Union of British Columbia Municipalities (UBCM), which represents B.C.’s 189 local governments and the Islands Trust;

* First Nations that utilize the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act; and

* the B.C. School Trustees Association, which represents boards of education.

“These changes strengthen the rules governing local government election finance by increasing transparency,” said Brian Frenkel, President, UBCM. “Local governments endorsed a call for these changes in 2020, and we appreciate the government’s response well in advance of the next local government general election.”

Changes will apply to all local elections starting with the 2022 general local elections and any byelections that follow, including elections for councillors, mayors, electoral area directors and school trustees. Any byelections already underway or scheduled before 2022 are not affected.

However, the new rules relating to sponsorship contribution limits will be made retroactively, effective from March 4, 2021, to prevent banned sponsorship contributions from being made between the time legislation is introduced and royal assent.

Quick Facts

* During B.C.’s local elections, held every four years, there are 1,660 elected positions voted on in 250 local government bodies in communities ranging in size from less than 200 people to more than 600,000 people.

* Elector organizations endorse candidates in local elections. They are often referred to as civic political parties.

Local Elections Campaign Financing Act amendments

Local elections are administered jointly by Elections BC and the local government where the election takes place. Elections BC is responsible for enforcing compliance with campaign financing rules and the local government is responsible for administering the election.

Improved regulatory framework for elector organizations:

* A new centralized registration framework for elector organizations will improve transparency around their financial activities and will be administered by Elections BC. Elector organizations will be required to:
* register with Elections BC to accept campaign contributions, endorse candidates or incur election expenses. Currently, elector organizations register with each local government or jurisdiction where they endorse a candidate; and

* file an annual financial report with Elections BC, which marks a change from filing only during an election year. This is consistent with what provincial political parties are asked to do.

* Elector organizations are also now banned from accepting non-campaign contributions to pay for operational expenses. This change will remove the ability of organizations, such as businesses and unions, from supporting elector organizations indirectly by providing funds for operational or administrative use in non-election years.

Election advertising changes:

* A pre-campaign period will be created to lengthen the time election advertising is regulated from 29 to 89 days.
* This means during the pre-campaign period (89 days before election day) election advertising, like billboards or commercials, will have to say who is sponsoring it. Advertising spending limits will still only apply during the campaign period, which starts 29 days before election day.

* Election advertising will now include paid canvassing activities.
* This means people who are paid to go door to door in support of a candidate or elector organization will be subject to election advertising rules.

Third-party advertising limits:

* To limit the potential influence of large donors during the election, these changes will set the contribution limit for third-party advertisers at $1,200, which matches the limit set for campaign contributions in 2017.

* A third-party advertiser or election advertising sponsor is an individual or organization that sponsors election advertising independently of a candidate or elector organization.

New investigative and enforcement tools:

* These changes will greatly improve the B.C. chief electoral officer’s ability to investigate and enforce violations of the Local Elections Campaign Financing Act by allowing them to:
* request records from companies that deal with online advertising to understand who is sponsoring advertising and how much was spent; and

* request a court order to seek records from financial institutions.

* Changes are also being made to help with the administration of campaign financing requirements in local elections, such as:
* extending late filing timelines for reports;

* allowing Elections BC to make minor corrections to financial reports; and

* allowing candidates and elector organizations to modify a Campaign Financing Arrangement (CFA) up until election day.

Note: A CFA is an agreement between an endorsed candidate and its elector organization, which allocates a certain amount of the candidate’s election expense limit for the elector organization to spend.

Improved framework for monetary penalties:

* These changes will create a more robust framework of monetary penalties that Elections BC can use to enforce compliance with local election campaign financing rules.

* Elections BC will now be able to issue monetary penalties for 50 more violations of local election campaign financing rules. Examples of the violations include but are not limited to:
* failing to register as an elector organization or third-party sponsor;

* failing to include sponsorship information on election advertising; and

* accepting prohibited campaign contributions, sponsorship contributions and loans.

These amendments intend to bring more consistency between the Local Election Campaign Financing Act and those established for provincial elections in the Election Act, while continuing to account for the unique nature of local elections.

Changes are also proposed for local government legislation and the School Act to improve and modernize the administration of local elections. These changes include:

* to encourage participation in local elections, removing the requirement that individuals must have been a resident of their community for at least 30 days in order to vote;

* allowing candidates and their representatives to have access to strata properties and other residential properties (e.g., housing co-operatives and rental properties, condominium buildings) for the purpose of canvassing and distributing candidate information; and

* removing the requirement for a ministerial order to trigger a byelection if the court declares an election invalid.