Are election spending limits unjust?

Our system may be imperfect, but it is much superior to the disgusting free-for-all that is the American electoral process

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EDMONTON, AB Jul 6, 2015/ Troy Media/ – If he were American, he’d be home by now.

Former Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, at one time Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, is in jail. His crime? Violating the Canada Elections Act by overspending on his successful 2008 run for his seat in Peterborough, Ontario. He had previously been found guilty of violating the same Act in October. During that trial the judge found that he had exceeded spending limits, failed to report a $21,000 personal contribution, and knowingly submitted a falsified document. del Mastro is appealing both charges.

Many pundits and commentators are relishing this case as an embarrassment for Stephen Harper and proof of the corruption and abuse of power they believe is rampant in the Conservative Party. My interest is in a deeper issue: is it just to have laws limiting election contributions and spending? Why should there be limits to how much you can spend to win an election?

No election spending limits in U.S.

In Canada, political parties have strict limits on the amount they can spend on campaigns for public office. The rates vary by riding and are based on population. In the United States, no such restriction exists. If it’s reasonable to think that we and the U.S. are equally entitled to call ourselves democratic, are our laws limiting election spending unjust?

Consider free speech: If you want to voice your opinion on a political issue you can write a letter to the editor of your newspaper, speak to your local MP in person, or take out an advertisement on television or in a newspaper. We set no limits on the amount you can spend to convince others about a particular issue. Is an election a meaningfully different issue? At a first glance it would certainly seem no different – the issue is whether or not a candidate gets elected. I can either pay for an advertisement myself or give my money to a group like Greenpeace or the Fraser Institute to do it for me.

It seems perfectly legitimate that I should be able to give money to a political party which may represent a whole host of my interests. Indeed, this is similar to the reasoning behind the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission that removed election spending limits on spending by corporations, unions, and other third parties.

The problem with the argument above has been pointed out by many commentators, but it’s worth repeating. It treats money as equivalent to speech. In a free society some people and groups have more money than others. Therefore they can speak more often and more loudly than those with less. It means their interests get more time and attention paid to them – this explains why gay marriage, a worthwhile but minor issue primarily of interest to the middle classes and the wealthy, has received so much more attention than the plight of Canada’s Aboriginal population, an important issue that suffers from a lack of powerful backers.

Advocates free to spend rest of the year

The time and attention of Canadians, as well as the media channels with which to reach them, are limited resources: money is a means not only to reach them but to crowd out other voices. Laws limiting spending on elections help protect the democratic process and ensure that voters can be informed about the choices confronting them. Limits placed on fundraisers also limit how much special interests, like unions or particular industries, can crowd out other contributors; without limits, a large oil company or national bank could easily outspend an environmental group or public health advocacy organization, ensuring their own interests dominate among politicians more than they do already.

During the rest of the year, advocates are free to spend as they please. We set off elections as a special time when we choose our representatives and help shape the next several years of national politics, one during which we try to make sure as many voices as possible are heard. Our system on election spending limits may be imperfect but it is much superior to the disgusting free-for-all that is the American electoral process.

Michael Flood is a marketing writer and communications consultant. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Alberta.

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