Politics in the Dark

One of the threats to democracy is so called “dark money” in politics. Dark money comes from individuals or groups that don’t disclose their donations. It pays for ads and other efforts to influence elections, but voters often don’t know who is behind those efforts. Money is given with the expectation of some benefit to the donor or perhaps, just philosophical alignment with the recipient. Or maybe the donor hopes for future policy support or a contract or something else from the public purse.

There are political donations that are legitimate of course. Cash donations are reported, and tax receipts are issued.  As Alberta approaches a Spring election – All parties are pressing to build up a fund for their campaigns.  In 2018, the UCP had raised $6.7 million, the NDP $3.4 million, the Alberta Party $600,000 and the Liberals $196,000.

Besides directed party donations, there are Political Action Committees (PACs) that collect donations and advertise or support candidates without being a formal part of a campaign organization. PACs are required to register and publicly report their donors and expenditures, along with other limitations. The biggest PAC that supports the NDP, the Federation of Labour has revenue of $651,000.  The UCP’s main PAC is called Shaping Alberta’s Future, they raised $1,176,000.

Incumbent governments often get into a grey zone when they use government resources to get re-elected such as program announcements and “government” publicity and advertising that are aimed at promoting their re-election.

In Alberta, the Progressive Conservatives were in power for 44 years.  And in every election, they far out distanced opposing parties with donations and “dark money”.  When the NDP swept into power in 2015 they promised to get rid of “dark money” and level the playing field.

The electoral reforms included eliminating donations from businesses or unions (which explains the rise of PACs). The legislation put a cap on the amount donors could give in a year. And it required that in-kind donations be included in the financial reports.  

The reforms upped the ante when it came to financial reporting at the constituency level.  Where once parties were required to do most of the reporting, the report process was pushed down to require more reporting from the volunteers on constituency organizations. Quarterly constituency financial reports are required. Individuals running to be candidates also have to file paperwork and financial reports.

But it hasn’t worked out perfectly! 

The reporting deadlines and drastic penalties for volunteer constituency organizations and candidates are far removed from the original intention of eliminating dark money. Stephen Mandel the Leader of the Alberta Party was tripped up and potentially banned from running for 5 years because he failed to submit a report that he didn’t spend any money when he was acclaimed as a candidate in his home riding.  There are a number of other candidates from all parties that have slipped up in completing their paperwork.  So now the candidates are off to court.

And the activities of PACs are difficult to police.  It seems that for every rule there’s a grey area on each side of the rule.  The PACs continue to raise funds and advertise to support their favored parties.  The NDP government has strayed over the line as it promotes its economic plan in the run-up to the election.  

And social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook are basically un-policed so literary rock throwing and character assassinations abound.

Elections Alberta has had its troubles too.  The regulations created a tsunami of paperwork and Elections Alberta doesn’t have enough people to manage its operations. And the rules often require interpretation. Sometimes the rules interpretation is inconsistent among staff in Elections Alberta.

Severely Normal Albertans might not feel like they can breathe a sigh of relief that “dark money” and full transparency have been achieved.