Why Play a Political Game That’s Rigged Against You?

If we fix the financial rules of the electoral game in Canada, we’ll widen the pool of players—and that’s a winning move for all of us.

Let’s say you want to run for politics but are nervous about whether you can hack it, given the need to take time off from work. Do you have a “political campaign emergency fund” set up? Probably not. Most of us don’t have access to the kind of money necessary to mount a political campaign, never mind the kind of money required to take 4-6 weeks off work to campaign.

In winter of 2021, the provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador was slated to be the shortest campaign ever (28 days) and ended up being the longest in the history of the province (8 weeks), leaving a lot of candidates in a bit of a bind when it came to their employment or their ability to continue to campaign. Some candidates (e.g. Amy Norman, NDP candidate for Lake Melville) went back to work and stopped actively campaigning, in order to pay the heat and light bills. Others did not (Sheilagh Fitzgerald, PC candidate for St. Barbe-L’Anse aux Meadows) and had a difficult time of it. Generally speaking, depending on the type of job the candidate had before the writ dropped, they may not be allowed to return to their job until the campaign is over. Sitting MHAs continued to draw their salary, so they didn’t feel the additional financial strain when the election was prolonged over and over and over again, with seemingly no end in sight.

Unfortunately, not everybody has access to funding in the same way, even if they’re not incumbents (i.e. they are running in a district and don’t currently hold that seat). Some candidates face more challenges than others, based on their sociodemographic background. Research shows that women and other non-traditional candidates (racialized candidates, immigrants, Indigenous candidates, and candidates with disabilities, for example) have less access to money to mount a political campaign than others. These groups are more likely to have lower paying jobs than white men and they are less likely to be part of affluent social networks (they have fewer “friends with money”), making it harder to fundraise.

This is one of the ways in which the political system continues to replicate pre-existing power dynamics, as the types of people most able to take time off work to run for politics are the same types of people who are already in politics. Affluent white men are better positioned to access campaign funding, and as a result, other groups are less likely to run for politics (or if they do run, these individuals are less likely to win, because the amount of money we have available to us affects how likely we are to succeed on election day).

There are things that we can do as a society to overcome this challenge and get more women to run (and by extension, elected to the legislature, since the research shows that when women run they win). In the United States, for example, groups have come together to create funding opportunities for non-traditional candidates. Take EMILY’s List, for example, an organization that seeks to fund the campaigns of women who run for the Democrats. The acronym stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast (because early donations grow and help the candidate secure a win, and are more effective than late-stage campaign donations), and Americans can donate money to this organization which then distributes it (early) to candidates. 

We don’t have a program like this in Canada, and indeed, Canadian campaign finance rules prevent individuals from donating to an organization such as this, requiring instead that individuals donate to parties. Canadian campaign finance rules actually prevent organizations like Equal Voice, whose mandate is to get more women elected to government, from achieving their goals. This organization can spend money for support in training and networking (which is important but not sufficient to getting women elected to government) but they cannot donate money to individual candidates or campaigns because of the financial restrictions placed on non-union, third party organizations. 

So a Canadian version of EMILY’s List does not exist—and it would actually be illegal here.

The fundraising rules are complicated, and they vary by political jurisdiction. In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, political parties and district associations can fundraise year-round, but candidates cannot do so in their own name until after the writ is dropped. This is a clear barrier for women and other traditionally marginalized groups, who may need more time to raise funds, given the lack of access to affluent institutionalized social networks.

One of the risks, of course, is that there are long-term consequences to this financial arrangement. We can imagine a single mom, for example, who has what it takes to be a great political representative but looked at the 2021 71-day campaign and thinks “no way can I take that much time off work” and as a result, she takes herself out of the candidate pool. So we’re left with the same old guys we always have. We can’t simply cut a cheque to a candidate to pay for the costs of childcare, for example, or “basic living expenses” even in situations like in NL in 2021 where candidates were off work for 8 weeks and probably needed a little help to pay the bills. 

Why is income replacement not an option? Because we are stuck in old ways of thinking. 

Did you know, for example, that it’s perfectly fine for a numbered company (and in NL, you are not required to publicly list a director of a numbered company) to donate any amount via cheque, but you can’t send an email money transfer over $100? This can disadvantage young candidates in particular, whose networks tend not to use printed cheques—I don’t even have printed cheques, and I’m no longer really considered “young” (despite what I might like to think about myself).

Candidates who get more than 15 percent of the popular vote are eligible to have 1/3 of their campaign expenses covered by provincial tax dollars. This means that we are funding a large portion of campaigns and candidates who are already much more well-off (e.g. incumbents, who are more likely to win their seat again). So we can ask ourselves the philosophical question: why should Andrew Furey or Ches Crosbie get their signs paid for by the public, but a woman first-time candidate in a lower income bracket can’t get a stipend to replace her income for a month? 

All rules are somewhat arbitrary at their core, privileging one thing over another. And unfortunately they were made by affluent white men and continue to benefit affluent white men.

Parties can and should do more. Some parties provide financial support to women specifically, like the NL NDP does, with its Helen Fogwill Porter fund to support women candidates. But campaign finance rules do not allow this funding to go to cover living expenses, so they don’t fix the income gap issue that many potential candidates would face.

What do we need? We need our campaign finance rules to change, with the recognition that not all candidates have the same level of privilege in their daily lives. If we want to widen the candidate pool, candidates need more access to money: money to finance the actual campaign, paying for things like lawn signs, phone banks, and campaign managers. But they also need money to replace lost income, to cover childcare, and other related expenses that will come up as a result of the decision to stand for office.

It looks like maybe there won’t be a general election for a couple of more years, at least. This gives the federal government some time to institute campaign finance reform. The rules were created in our political institutions, by legislators who have historically been white men. Those men, even if they meant well, had blind spots that were not attuned to making it easier to run or to level the playing field. But the rules of the game affect both a) how we play the game; and b) who gets to play in the first place. Campaign finance rules are one essential key to this game, and they support the status quo. Unless we talk about the specific barriers that actually make it harder for women and other non-traditional candidates to run, nothing is going to change.

The problem is not the women who opt not to run. They have correctly identified the ways in which they lose before the game even starts. Why play a game that’s rigged against you? 

If we want to change the players, we need to change the rules of the game.

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