Recommendations to change the provincial act that governs local elections is likely a direct result of happenings during Calgary’s last municipal election, according to a Calgary political scientist.
Elections Alberta released their 2021-2022 annual report on Thursday, and with it came several recommendations for changes to the Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA).
Among the proposed changes is a provision to prohibit third-party advertiser (TPA) activities “that would normally be undertaken by a candidate” unless they’re recorded as election expenses, by that candidate.
Accusations were made and complaints were filed in the 2021 Calgary municipal election around candidate Jeff Davison and his connection to the TPA Calgary Tomorrow.
Later, a complaint was filed by fellow mayoral contender Jan Damery alleging the Davison campaign received and distributed election signs paid for by Calgary Tomorrow. We have asked Elections Alberta about the status of those complaints. They said they weren’t able to comment on active complaints or ongoing investigations. Results of investigations would be posted to their site.
In a prior statement, Elections Alberta said their recommendations came as a result of general observations and enforcement of certain parts of the Act.
“They are not driven by the specific activities of any one individual or group,” the statement read.
In the proposed changes found in the report, Elections Alberta uses the following example: “For example, if a third party can purchase lawn signs promoting a candidate and then give them to the candidate, this expense goes unrecorded for the candidate and effectively renders any expense limit or candidate campaign expense reporting as meaningless.”
The act also clarifies rules around collusion, closing a potential interpretation that might allow a candidate to work with a TPA (rather than a TPA working with a candidate).
Connected to the Calgary election: UCalgary’s Lisa Young
UCalgary political scientist Lisa Young said Calgary’s last mayoral race was competitive. Several candidates emerged into that upper tier vying for citizen votes. Davison, for his part, finished third behind Jeromy Farkas and eventual winner, Jyoti Gondek.
Young said it probably wasn’t that Elections Alberta was focused on Davison and Calgary Tomorrow, except for the approach they took during the last election.
“It’s not surprising – it’s one of the largest cities, in a very competitive election, that someone gets creative and decides to do something to take an approach that tests the limits of the law,” Young said.
But make no mistake, Young thinks that the Elections Alberta report is directly addressing the Calgary municipal election. Calgary had nine TPAs registered in the last municipal election. By comparison, Edmonton had two.
“I think most of what I read here was clearly speaking to the Calgary election campaign,” Young said. She also cited the sign example.
“I think that just puts a fingerprint on it that it’s clearly speaking to what happened in Calgary.”
Young called the Elections Alberta report excellent. She said it points to exactly the issues that caused problems in the 2021 Calgary municipal election.
“I think it’s urgent to act on them well in advance of the next campaign,” she said.
LWC has reached out to the Minister of Municipal Affairs for comment on the report and changes to the LAEA. They have acknowledged our request and said the province typically reviews the legislation after every municipal election.
Third party advertiser disclosure
Another change recommended in the report is for the TPA disclosure filings to be made public.
LWC and other media outlets had to submit Freedom of Information and Privacy requests in order to access TPA disclosure information. Even then, the names of the donors were redacted from those statements.
Millions were spent by TPAs in the last Calgary municipal election. Calgarians for a Progressive Future had a war chest of $1.6 million. They, however, accounted – generally – for their donors.
Others did not. Calgary Tomorrow – the second largest TPA by dollar value – had an estimated $400,000 in donations. Donors were not disclosed. (It’s important to note that Elections Calgary had asked TPAs to disclose donors, but under the rules, a TPA can deny access.)
The recommendation made by Elections Alberta is somewhat ambiguous but aims to open up access to the TPA disclosures.
“Require public access to third-party registers and filings,” the report read.
The report said that some local authorities have taken the position that unless explicitly authorized, they won’t open up TPA disclosures to the public.
“This position significantly defeats the objectives of transparency and accountability in the funding of candidates,” the report read.
Young said no one should have to take extraordinary measures to have access to this information.
“The first level of regulations for election finance, is transparency. It’s based on the idea that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and that we need to know who is giving money to whom in the political sphere,” she said.
“The fact that we don’t know who contributed to the third party advertisers in the Calgary election is shocking.”
Elections Calgary’s Chief Returning Officer Kate Martin recommended public access to third party filings in a submission to Elections Alberta.
Mis – and dis – information
Young also pointed out that the report specifically mentioned the rise of misinformation and disinformation.
“The spreading of a false narrative, by any group or organization with the intention of swaying voters in a particular direction, negatively impacts our democratic process,” the report read.
Young said it’s become a problem at all levels of government, but it was interesting the Elections Alberta report addressed it specifically.
“I think it’s good that they’re keeping an eye on this and poking at the provincial government to put something in the relevant legislation,” she said.