Albertans may have already seen advertisements on social media endorsing candidates or highlighting issues ahead of this fall’s municipal election, and experts say voters need to be cautious about what they’re seeing and hearing.
Last summer, the UCP introduced multiple changes to municipal elections, allowing more money to be spent on influencing voters through third-party advertisers or political action committees, otherwise known as PACs.
Any person, corporation or group must register if they plan to spend (or receive) more than $1,000 for advertisements in support of or in opposition of a specific candidate for council or school boards.
But if people or groups focus their campaigns on issues, there are no restrictions. There’s also no maximum on what a PAC can spend.
Political scientist Chaldeans Mensah says this is something voters should pay close attention to, because of how the money may change our local political landscape.
“If you look at the history of PACs in the United States, they’ve contributed to the polarization of politics. I think Edmontonians should be concerned,” he said.
Third-party ads aren’t new at other levels of government. Provincially, there’s more than 30 listed on Elections Alberta’s website.
Federally, millions are spent each election, like television commercials backing one person running for prime minister over another.
But the provincial government is now formalizing those ads at the municipal level, something the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association was strongly opposed to.
“The third-party advertising rules introduced by this government open local elections to non-local issues and could allow those with the deepest pockets to influence the make-up of our communities’ elected bodies,” explained AUMA president Barry Morishita.
Each person, corporation, or group is allowed to donate up to $30,000 to a PAC, which experts say is big money in municipal politics.
Last election, the average winning council campaign in Edmonton cost $65,000.
“If that one person has a ton of money, they can spend it and have a ton of influence over the election — which is completely undemocratic because they’re just one voter,” explained Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher.
Mayor Don Iveson said Edmonton’s council also disagrees with the changes.
“It is disappointing to see. It is a move towards the Americanization, sadly, of our politics. I do think there needs to be rules and ways for civil society to engage, but I think those rules need to favour democracy instead of special interest.”
Councillor Andrew Knack says he’s been seeing third-party ads pop up on his social media streams for the last few months, and says the information is often misleading.
“The ability for them to operate with very, very limited transparency — that gives them the ability to influence elections,” he said.
When asked Thursday for comment on the criticisms of the new legislation, a spokesperson for the department of Municipal Affairs said a previous statement from former minister Kaycee Madu still stood, in which he said the new guidelines “will help lead to more competitive local elections and increase voter participation.”
Mensah said voters need to be savvy and think critically about the motivation behind each ad and PAC.
“We have to ask questions; who is supporting these groups? What is their agenda?”
To date, no third-party advertisers have registered in Edmonton.