As few weeks back I wrote a piece in which I brought up changes to the elections laws and how their changes can create issues and situations from campaign to campaign. In that case, I was talking about the ability of environmental NGO’s to be involved in campaigns or comment on issues of importance to them during an election period. But today I bring you another case, one that I would argue poses a bigger problem for our democracy and ensuring that we have a level playing field. This case was one that only seemed to be a matter of time before it happened, and just in time for 2019, it’s here:
One of the changing features of our democracy over the past decade has been the rise of third-party groups and their involvement during and between campaigns. Unlike in the United States, their activities have been regulated under Elections Law, even though the rules around their abilities to raise funds aren’t. Some third party groups have taken up messages that the parties they support can’t say, like we saw with the recent case of billboards in support of Maxime Bernier’s PPC. In that case, those billboards specifically said to “Vote PPC”, and looked eerily like an actual campaign billboard. But that was completely allowed within the rules set out by Elections Canada because they were independent and there didn’t seem to be overt cooperation between the PPC and the group paying for the billboard.
And when it comes to third party groups, that is the line that is drawn to what is acceptable in regard to activity; the Elections Act forbids candidates from co-ordinating their campaigns with third-party organizations. Period, end of story. That brings us to the story above about the activities of Right Now, which is “recruiting and training activists to volunteer for 50 candidates in the upcoming federal election.” If that was all that was happening, that would seem to be alright, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. According to reporting from CBC, Right Now has been training volunteers using a webinar that raises some serious concerns:
RightNow’s other co-founder, Alissa Golob, pointed out in a recent webinar that the movement lost half of the 80 members of Parliament who supported the group’s cause in 2015. She said that shift motivated her to help create a third party to get “more pro-life candidates” elected.https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/rightnow-volunteers-campaign-abortion-questions-1.5272540
In the same webinar, Golob explains the nuts and bolts of volunteering, from door-to-door campaigning to helping get the vote out on election day.
She mentions using the Conservative Party’s Constituent Information Management System (CIMS) as one technique and explains how to download the data program’s smart phone app, CIMS2Go, to gather key voter information at the door, and how to input constituents’ intentions using the app’s happy face, neutral face or sad face emojis.
Here is where a line seems like it may have been crossed. It’s one thing to train people to volunteer and knock on doors; most of what you would teach there is very common across the board and would be applicable to any party or candidate you were volunteering with. But the moment they start mentioning party-specific technology or techniques, you’re no long training a random volunteer; you’re training a volunteer for a specific party. That is a campaign expense, that costs money to a campaign is something that must be accounted for in their campaign returns. Furthermore, this is basically suggesting that this group would be collecting voter data that it wouldn’t be using for itself but would be giving it to the Conservative party for them to use. That’s no different than if they went door to door in a neighbourhood, took notes, and handed it over to the local campaign, which would run afoul of the same rules. That’s probably why Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer from 2007 to 2016, mentioned in the piece that this raises a lot of questions.
Add to this that this is not some one-off event in some random riding; this is an organized, national campaign that admits they are trying to elect candidates sympathetic to their cause in 50 ridings. Imagine if a union like Unifor did this, and then imagine the bloody murder the Conservatives would be screaming about it. This seems to be flagrantly against the spirit of the law, if not the letter of it.
But that’s kind of the point here of this piece. When you get changes in law like these, it isn’t until it’s implemented that we see what it will do, and that usually involves people pushing the boundaries of it and getting their wrists slapped. The question here though is if Elections Canada will look into this and deliver their ruling here. But as Mr. Mayrand points out in the CBC story, collusion between third parties and campaigns is notoriously difficult to prove. Elections Canada “must find “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the two groups operated in concert, shared resources or information, and had a common strategy to help the candidate.” That’s not a low bar, but this story here surely raises questions about this.
This story is important because if this kind of behaviour is overlooked and not investigated, other third party groups may take this non-investigation as a tactic approval of the approach. If this kind of activity (teaching random volunteers party-specific techniques and then pushing them towards using their technology to collect data for that party) is allowed to be done by third parties, then you’ve created a massive loophole in Canada’s finance laws that anyone could drive a Mack Truck through. That would undermine our democracy and seriously tilt the playing field in a way that would be perverse. So here’s to hoping that Elections Canada steps in here and gives this a strong look because something smells very wrong here. This strikes me on its face as at least against the spirit of the law, and potentially the letter of it. It’s for Elections Canada to sort that out and I hope they don’t leave this lingering out there for too long. The health of our democracy depends on it.