Finance limits and the role of local political parties in Vancouver municipal elections

Councillor_votes_totals_EOs2There are currently no spending limits in place for municipal elections in the City of Vancouver or in any BC municipality. Changes are being considered in the legislation governing local elections in British Columbia. One of the changes that is being considered by a Legislative Committee is to impose spending limits on local elections.

During the 2014 election, the declared spending by Vision Vancouver was $3.43 million while the NPA spent around $2.39 million. The spending by these two parties and the candidates running for these parties combined made up for approximately 90% of the spending by all local municipal parties and candidates in the City of Vancouver.

The Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits is conducting a series of Public Hearings in BC. Feedback is also possible via an online survey and in the form of written submissions. The next Public Hearing in Vancouver will be held on Thursday, April 9, 2015 between 1pm and 7pm (Room 320, Wosk Centre, 580 W Hastings St, registration via webpage).

One of the key questions from the Special Committee is whether spending limits should be imposed on a per candidate basis or on a local municipal party basis. As well, the Special Committee is looking for suggestions on the maximum level of spending. Finally, the level of spending by third parties during elections is another area of study.

Vancouver has a number of local political parties that are also known as elector organizations. Independent candidates have not been elected for quite some time; the last independent City Councillor was elected in 1988. If a candidate would like to have a realistic chance of being elected, it’s advisable for them to first seek a nomination to run under the banner of an elector organization. The top independent Councillor candidate in 2014 was Lena Ling who received 8,197 votes. The 10th place in City Council was 56,831 votes, hence Ms. Ling only received 14.4% of the votes needed for the final place on Council. It’s worth noting that independent candidates are not big spenders; in 2014 all independents combined to spend only $14,807 and made up approximately 0.23% of the total spending during the election.

Can money buy elections? Did the party that spent the most money end up winning the majority on City Council? Consider the following results of the race for City Councillor:

Council_Candidates_more_than_8k_2It’s also worth noting that Vision Vancouver elected 6 City Councillors, the NPA elected 3 and the Green Party elected 1 Councillor. The NPA received more total votes for City Councillors than Vision Vancouver; however, since the results are not proportional, the final elected Councillor breakdown is as follows:

All_Councillors_2014Another way to look at the results for the City Councillor race is to examine the average number of votes received per candidate for each elector organization:

Average votes per candidate for CouncilThe current at-large electoral system in Vancouver is in need of significant campaign finance reform for elector organizations. A basic question should be: how much money is realistically needed to run a campaign? Perhaps the spending by the Green Party, COPE and One City is an indication of the range of spending that should be allowed (from $55,000 to $125,000 to $200,000), as this is the kind of money that is needed to run a campaign. It’s also important to look at how some of the parties are spending their money. Vision Vancouver spent over $780,000 on staff, $310,000 on ‘professional services’ and $114,000 on polling and research. Many of the smaller elector organizations by contrast relied almost exclusively on volunteers and conducted their own research (all of the disclosure forms are available here for comparison).

The Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits is considering an option that would allow an elector organization to combine the spending limits of each of their candidates. Would this be a viable option to reel in spending? For example, if the province were to set a spending limit of 25 cents per registered voter, then a single campaign could spend $114,000. If an elector organization ran 21 candidates, then the sum of the spending of all candidates would be around $2.4 million. On the other hand, if there was a single maximum spending limit for each elector organization (i.e. combined spending by the party and all of the candidates that run under it), this could significantly reign in spending. For example, if an elector organization were to spend up to 35 cents per registered voter (or $146,000), a level of spending could be established to help even the playing field.

The mandate of the Local Elections Expense Limits committee is quite narrow (text of the committee’s First Report is available here). The focus of the committee is to find a formula for spending limits. Examining the issues of contribution limits and the contribution source was supported by the 3 NDP members of the committee; however, the Hansard record from Monday, December 15, 2014 shows that 4 BC Liberals voted against the following motion:

As a result of the consultation undertaken by the committee, it was noted that a substantive number of submissions indicate that contribution limits and donation source are central to the principle of fairness. The committee therefore requests that consideration be given to expand the mandate of the Special Committee on Local Elections Expense Limits to include consideration of these matters.

Other jurisdictions, such as the City of Toronto limit donations to only individuals for Council and Mayoral races. As well, donation caps are imposed (Toronto: $750 per Councillor or $2500 for mayoral candidate; Winnipeg limit: $750, Montreal limit: $300). Should the majority on the Special Committee reconsider their position not to impose contribution limits?

Elector organizations in Vancouver are entrenched in municipal government. Here are a few issues that could be considered:

  • should all candidates run as independents? (as in Ontario – local political parties are banned)
  • should Vancouver move back to a Ward system? (abolished after 1936)
  • if elector organizations remain, should proportional representation be used to elect members of Council, Park Board and School Board? Would Proportional Representation be an improvement over the at-large system?
  • should all mayoral candidates run as independents?
  • should there be annual disclosures for non-election years?

Vote breakdown for all Councillor candidates:
2014 Councillor candidates Number of elected representatives by party (Council, Park Board, School Board):
All candidates elected 2014Spending by Vision Vancouver (for the main elector organization and school board disclosure forms; does not include spending by individual candidates), click to enlarge:
Vision expenses 2014

For comparison, the 2011 election spending figures are available in the following posts:
Snapshot of 2011 Vancouver election campaign finance (pie graph) as most numbers now in (CHW, March 19, 2012)
Why we need finance reform: $5,905,589 total spent in 2011 Vancouver civic campaign, $40.78 per vote (CHW, April 14, 2014)

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