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PART 1: New Political Advertising Rules Under the Elections Modernization Act

Published on
August 1, 2019

On June 30, the pre-writ period of the Elections Modernization Act came into effect, an act that aims to “safeguard Canadians’ trust in our democratic processes and increase participation in democratic activities.”

What are the New Rules?

The Act outlines several changes for political advertising during the election, including:

  • Defines the Pre-Writ Period with Spending Limits: The Act creates a “pre-writ” period from June 30 until the writ drops, in which political parties can spend a maximum of $2.046 million and third-party organizations can spend up to $1.023 million until the writ drops (likely in September). Once the writ drops, parties’ spending limit is based on the number of electors per electoral districts, but third-party organizations can only spend up to $511,700 nationally with a maximum of $4,386 per electoral district. The purpose of these changes is to “create a level playing field among registered parties,” but some analysts question whether the rule will achieve this goal (See “Implications” to learn more).
  • Adds Reporting Requirements for Political Advertising: With an election registry on the Elections Canada website, political parties and third-party organizations are now required to report all digital “partisan expenses” that cost $500 or more and who these particular ads target, and identify who has made contributions to the organization. The Act also requires political parties and third-party organizations to identify themselves as being behind a political ad that is posted online.
  • Protects Canadians Against Foreign Interference: Lastly, the Act serves to prevent foreign interference by prohibiting foreign entities from purchasing regulated ads during the election period. However, it is unclear how this will come into practice, especially with CSIS reporting that foreign influence campaigns to target Canadians and political parties are already underway.

What are the Implications of these Rules?

The overall goal of the Elections Modernization Act is to create a level playing field: a $2 million spending cap is meant to contain the advantage that the Liberals and Conservatives have when it comes to fundraising over parties like the NDP and Greens (in the second quarter of 2019, the Liberals and Conservatives raised $5 million and $8.5 million respectively, while the Greens raised nearly $1.44 million and the NDP raised just over $1.43 million).

Before the pre-writ period, basketball fans viewers will remember the veritable deluge of political ads playing on TV during the Raptors Finals, where political parties and organizations, like Engage Canada and Shaping Canada’s Future, took full advantage of their flush of available funds to spend before June 30. It was a tactical move: with reports showing that 7.7 million Canadians tuned in to Game 6, political organizations were able to reach nearly half of all Canadians – if they could afford it. With high price tags (one 30-second TV spot reportedly cost between $50,000 to $80,000), this was a playing field exclusively for the biggest spenders.

Proponents of the Act argue it would contain this pay-to-play situation reoccurring during the election, but political parties and third-party organizations are finding creative ways communicate their message to voters without violating the new rules.

For example, one point of interest in the Act is how it defines “partisan advertising” versus “issue advertising.” “Partisan” activities are defined as advertising that mentions a particular candidate or party, and all partisan activities that cost more than $500 must be registered with Elections Canada immediately after incurring the expense. “Issue advertising” can be associated with a candidate or registered party but cannot identify that candidate or party in the ad, and issue advertising do not have to be registered with Elections Canada or counted toward the spending limit.

This means that third-party organizations with large fundraising amounts are able to advertise around specific issues to their heart’s content.

Similarly, while political parties and third-party organizations are required to report on ads they pay to amplify on social media (i.e. paying for more people to view your ad), organic content they share with their followers does not count toward the total spending limit. This advantages politicians and organizations with large social media followings, like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Engage Canada, because they can share their message without tapping into their allocated budget and also because users view organic content as more trustworthy than paid content.

What Now?

Now that we’re in the pre-writ period, political parties and third-party organizations are required to post their spending and who their ads are targeting on Elections Canada’s website immediately after incurring the expense, which gives us a peek into the kind of influence third-party organizations have on our elections. As of July 17, the first two third-party organizations have registered their advertising expenses and donors on Elections Canada’s website, Canada Growth Council and Fair Vote Canada.

However, digital-savvy parties and organizations are finding innovative, creative ways of navigating the new election rules – especially on social media. To read more, stay tuned for Part Two where we'll discuss the role of social media advertising in the election.

While there are still a lot of questions about how these rules are coming into practice, we at Sussex can help organizations navigate the new campaign advertising rules while still getting your message in front of voters, key stakeholders, and political decision-makers this election season.

Zoë Knowles
Associate, Strategic Communications
Zoë is an Associate on the communications team at Sussex. She has experience in corporate branding and communications strategies, with a focus on healthcare.
Fraser Lockerbie
Associate, Digital Strategy
As an experienced digital strategist and communications professional, Fraser Lockerbie leads Adrenaline’s social and digital media campaigns, managing client campaigns with spending levels of up to $750,000/month. He is an expert in audience segmentation, behavioural & contextual targeting, message refinement and digital acquisition, activation & retention.
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