Part 1: Recommendations Relating to Electoral Communications – Meeting New Challenges: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada following the 43rd and 44th General Elections
Communications between electors, on the one hand, and candidates, parties and third parties, on the other, lie at the heart of Canada's electoral process.
In recent years, communications between electors and political entitiesfootnote 1—like so many other aspects of our lives—have been transformed by digital technology. Electors are spending more time online, and candidates, political parties and third parties increasingly use digital communications technologies in their campaigns. Because digital communications are enabled by the collection of personal data, they can be highly targeted. Depending on their nature, digital communications may cost less to produce than messages delivered through traditional media and can be shared millions of times over in a short period of time. Digital communications involve an abundance of information, travelling at high speeds and in multiple directions. This mostly takes place on private-sector online platforms, which, together, exercise a high degree of control over how the information ecosystem operates.
The significance of digital communications for democracy will continue to grow. They create positive opportunities for parties and candidates to enhance their relationships with electors by increasing access to the information that electors need to participate in elections. However, digital communications also pose threats to the values that underpin electoral democracy, including transparency, fairness among competing political entities and meaningful participation in the electoral process. Within the digital information ecosystem, it is sometimes difficult to know who is communicating with electors and why, whether the communicators and their messages can be trusted and, ultimately, what information should be used when making voting choices.
There are also malign actors that seek to manipulate the information environment and election outcomes. The fierce competition for electoral success can lead to false information poisoning the well of otherwise healthy political discourse. Online falsehoods can become real-life threats to the electoral process and to the stability of electoral democracy in general. As we have seen from international events in recent years, malign actors, whether foreign or domestic, have attempted to sow division and cast doubts about the integrity of electoral processes and their results. Canada's information ecosystem is not immune to the risk of being used to undermine elections or even democracy itself.
Following the 2019 general election, Elections Canada chose to address the increasingly complex and important topic of how political entities communicate with electors in the digital age and what steps Parliament may wish to take so that the Act continues to uphold the values and objectives that underlie it.
In June 2020, Elections Canada started a conversation about how to regulate "political communications" in the digital era. The agency distributed discussion papers on three themes to political parties and stakeholders and experts from academia and civil society organizations: political communications regulated under the Act, the impact of social media in federal elections and the protection of electors' personal information. The discussion papers posed over 50 questions designed to generate discussion and ideas to help inform Elections Canada's recommendations to Parliament. The report on this consultation process can be found on Elections Canada's website. In this report, we have adjusted our terminology from "political communications" to "electoral communications," while keeping in mind their connection with the federal electoral process.
This part of the report is divided into six sections, which are summarized below. Each section describes pertinent legislation, identifies problem areas and proposes recommendations for change. While each section explores a distinct theme, they are all concerned with improving the information ecosystem that underpins the functioning of our federal elections and democracy in general.
- Moving Beyond Advertising—identifies the drawbacks of regulating only "advertising" as a form of electoral communication in the digital age. It argues that, to increase the transparency of campaign activity, the same rules should generally apply to all electoral communications, regardless of whether they meet the current definition of advertising.
- Reviewing the Third Party Regime—reexamines the 2018 updates to the third party regime and raises questions about its scope and coverage. It recommends clarifying the definition of issue-based communications, increasing the third party registration threshold and limiting the use of a third party's own funds.
- Pre-Registration of Candidates—recommends allowing candidates to pre-register with Elections Canada before the election period. This practice would assist the agency in regulating certain aspects of the electoral communications regime as well as increase benefits to candidates, parties and the electoral process.
- Protecting Against Threats to the Electoral Process—provides an overview of specific sections of the Act that seek to promote healthy debate in an electoral democracy; it recommends creating a new prohibition and broadening existing ones. It also recommends giving any elector the ability to apply to a court and seek to deny registration to, or deregister, parties whose primary purpose is the dissemination of hatred.
- Regulating Channels of Electoral Communication—discusses the need to modernize regulations with respect to online platforms, text messages and broadcasting. It also recommends enhancing the transparency of digital electoral communications.
- Protecting Individuals Receiving Electoral Communications—makes recommendations to uphold trust in the electoral process by enhancing the protection of electors' personal information and granting electors the right to opt out of receiving electoral communications.
Return to footnote 1 Unless otherwise specified, the term "political entities" includes candidates, political parties and third parties, along with electoral district associations and nomination and leadership contestants.