Time to reform municipal voting
Time to reform municipal voting TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Time to reform municipal voting
July 02, 2009
If fair elections are the hallmark of democracy, municipal races in Ontario scarcely count. Existing rules have long been skewed toward incumbents, giving them several advantages that undercut their rivals, especially in key areas such as election fundraising and the use of taxpayers’ money to support campaigning.
The Ontario government is currently studying province-wide changes to the law that governs the way municipal elections are run in this province. Here are some changes for consideration:
Political newsletters. Currently, when an election looms, it’s up to each municipality to decide when councillors should stop circulating newsletters to constituents at the taxpayers’ expense. The province doesn’t monitor the situation, but there is a well-founded concern that the distribution of self-aggrandizing – and publicly funded – newsletters in the run-up to an election gives incumbents an unfair advantage.
Before the 2006 municipal election, Toronto city council shoved aside advice from the city’s integrity commissioner, who suggested an Aug. 1 cutoff for taxpayer-funded newsletters, and adopted Sept. 29 instead. That was barely seven weeks before the election.
Given this experience, it is apparent that only the province can guarantee a fair cutoff date for such newsletters.
Union and corporate donations. In Toronto, there is a move afoot to ban such donations, which flow disproportionately to incumbents in municipal campaigns. The city’s executive committee has instructed staff to draft a bylaw implementing a ban, with the matter slated to go to council in September.
But Toronto is currently the only city in Ontario with the power to do this. Other municipalities first need the provincial law to be amended to grant them the option. Unfortunately, the Queen’s Park Liberals are reluctant to do this, as it would call attention to their own failure to ban corporate and union donations at the provincial level.
Election spending rules. Large-scale fundraising drives and lavish post-election parties for supporters do not now count against the cap for campaign expenditures. So Toronto Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, for example, legally spent almost $74,000 on fundraising in the last election – despite a cap of just $22,368 on overall spending in his ward. Most of his outlay went toward a lavish campaign banquet that did not formally qualify as an expense.
Banking unspent donations. Incumbents also benefit from a rule allowing candidates to raise large sums – often far more than they could legally spend in any one election – and bank the left-over cash for future contests. The resulting campaign war chests serve to discourage challengers.
Next year’s municipal election races officially start in early January, leading to a November vote. In order to apply to the 2010 race, then, any reforms introduced by the province must be in place by the end of this year. That doesn’t leave much time.
To date, the Liberal government’s record on municipal election reform has been minimal, while suggestions for reforming the system have been abundant. Perhaps the government can find the will to make significant changes over the next six months.