Level electoral playing field by limiting voters’ total financial contributions

Posted on March 15, 2018 in Governance Debates

NationalPost.com – Opinion – Such a system would be self-equilibrating, as between political parties and advocacy groups: the more you gave to one, the less ‘room’ you’d have left to give to another
March 14, 2018.   Andrew Coyne

Little by little, we are inching towards a sensible system of regulating political financing in this country. We will find the right balance at last when we fully grasp the fundamental principle on which any such system must be based. It is the same that underlies our system of government, and of law: the equality of every individual citizen.

An election is a conversation among the whole population. Its unit of currency is the individual. We vote as individuals, one ballot at a time; we run for Parliament as individual candidates; and so on. The parties are merely vehicles for like-minded individuals to participate, directing and amplifying their voices beyond what they could achieve in isolation. They have no moral standing beyond that of the individuals of which they are composed.

For a long time we forgot all this. We set limits on party spending, yet set virtually no limits on contributions. We achieved a certain measure of fairness between the parties — but at the expense of fairness between the members of each. A party with a million members, each of which contributed $20, was under the same spending cap as a party with 20 members, each of whom contributed $1 million.

Moreover, corporations and unions were allowed to donate, which is to say the leaders of these organizations were permitted to donate, not just their own money, but other people’s as well, usually without their permission. So the beginning of wisdom, first in Quebec, then federally, latterly in some of the other provinces, was to get the corporate and union money out, allowing only individual donations (plus some government assistance, via the tax credit on contributions and reimbursement of candidate expenses), themselves subject to limits.

But this led to other problems. The ceilings on party spending, and even more the limits on donations, were a direct incentive for so-called “third-party” groups to proliferate, ostensibly independent — collusion is prohibited — but free to participate in campaigns, often in overtly partisan ways, without being subject to the same limits. Sometimes, as in recent Ontario elections, the result was a free-for-all, in which party spending was dwarfed by the millions spent by third-party groups. Federal rules at present are almost as lax.

At other times, spending limits on third-party groups have been set so tight as to effectively ban them from participating. But this only replaces one excess with another. Sometimes a citizen may genuinely feel that none of the parties represents his views, or that an issue he cares deeply about is being ignored. To prohibit him from spending money, on his own or in combination with others, to promote his views in this way is a serious violation of his freedom of speech.

So the Public Policy Forum has it half-right, with its latest policy paper(“Transparent and Level: Modernizing Political Financing in Canada”). In addition to restricting donations to eligible voters, the PPF — a cross-section of the Canadian establishment with representation from public, private and non-profit organizations — would put parties and advocacy groups on a level footing, leaving it up to each individual to decide how to project his voice in the political arena. The same $1,575 contribution limit, that is, would apply to each.

But if you accept that logic, why treat them separately at all? Per-group contribution limits, after all, still permit the wealthy to contribute to multiple groups, leaving individuals of different means with very different abilities to influence the national conversation. What’s needed, rather, is to limit not contributions but overall contributing capacity — the total amount an individual may contribute to all politically active groups, so far as these attempt to influence the outcomes of elections. Any money they spent supporting or opposing a party or candidate would have to come out of funds raised in this way.

We achieved a certain measure of fairness between the parties – but at the expense of fairness between the members of each

Such a system would be self-equilibrating, as between political parties and advocacy groups: the more you gave to one, the less “room” you’d have left to give to another. Beyond that, little further regulation would be required. Suppose, as a thought experiment, everyone had the same income: in such a world there would be no concern at the rich having disproportionate influence, and no need to limit donations (beyond ensuring they were not so large as to make their recipients beholden: past a certain point we are no longer talking about speech so much as bribes). Capping an individual’s total contribution capacity is the closest practical equivalent to this.

That leaves the question of how much that annual ceiling should be set at. I’ve come to the conclusion it need not be very high at all. That’s partly a matter of equity — how equally would we be treating individuals if one person’s contributions were limited to $10,000 annually, while another only earned that much in a year? But it’s also a matter of observation: we don’t need to spend nearly as much as we do on political campaigns.

I’ve made this point before: there’s no objective necessity to current spending levels. The parties only spend as much as they do because the other parties do. And what they spend it on is, by and large, not only unnecessary — mostly their efforts cancel each other out — but harmful: attack ads, push polls, robocalls and, increasingly, frantic efforts to raise still more funds. Sometimes the latter is invoked as an argument for public subsidy, to relieve parties of this pressure. But surely the simpler remedy is just for all of them to spend less.

What of value would be lost if, say, we converted the current $1,575 per-contribution limit to a total annual contribution limit? I’m guessing fewer pollsters, strategists and advertising copywriters would be employed. But what would be the downside?


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