Campaign finance reform must be more than a ban on big money

Originally published in The Georgia Straight, June 3 2016

It seems as if almost everyone is talking about campaign finance reform lately.  It’s no wonder.  The vast and obscene donations tied up in political campaigns distort and deform the electoral process, making “big money” the critical factor in determining who governs.  

Vancouver is a perfect example of the problem as developers pour millions into the process – and expect and get a handsome return on their investments.  During the 2014 election the two largest parties, Vision and the NPA received over five and a half million dollars in donations.

For many, Campaign Finance Reform starts and ends with a call to ban corporate and union donations to political parties.

We at OneCity start somewhere else entirely.

We believe that for reform to be effective, two fundamental principles need to be put into place.  First, individual donations must be limited to a modest amount so the majority of residents can influence the process equitably if they choose to.  Second, the total amount candidates may spend must be strictly limited so the ability to raise funds through donations is not the determining factor in an election.

Here are the limits OneCity would impose:

  • Individual donations during the election period would be limited to $250.  Even with this limit, many residents wouldn’t be able to afford a maximum donation – and therefore not be able to influence equally with their neighbours.  But $250 seems a reasonable compromise between affordability and equity.
  • Total spending by a political party would be limited to $1 per eligible voter.  In Vancouver that would generate a maximum spending limit of about $400,000.
  • Individual candidates would be limited to a maximum spending limit of $25,000.  Therefore parties of 16 or more candidates (with 27 positions available) would all have as their limit the $400,000 maximum. 
  • Political parties would be required to disclose all non-campaign period donations on an annual basis.
  • Third party spending during the election period would be limited to $.25 per voter – or about $100,000 per third party grouping.

As for the question of corporate and union donations, if and only if strict controls on individual donations and total spending – like the ones outlined above – are put in place, would we at OneCity support a ban on those donations.

The danger with the currently popular calls for only a ban on corporate and union donations is that without strict limits on donations and total spending such a ban would produce an even worse situation than we already face. It would mean that wealthy and privileged residents could have free reign to spend on election campaigns (as individuals) while poor, working class and middle class individuals and families would have only the theoretical right to do so, but would be constrained by their financial situations from participating equally.

It’s easy to talk in general terms about “CFR”, but we need concrete and specific proposals that would actually get big money out of city hall.  That’s why we’ve proposed this very clear and effective plan.

We at OneCity challenge all of the political parties in Vancouver to join us in calling for equitable donation and spending limits that get big money out of City Hall once and for all.  

Michael Hughes is a founding member of OneCity Vancouver and works as an industrial scientist. He has been active in politics at all levels and is most interested in issues of affordable housing, transit, and encouraging local sustainable economic opportunities. 

Christine Boyle is a founding member ofOneCity Vancouver. She is a local community organizer and parent.

 

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