Are you, or have you ever been, a volunteer with a local campaign in a Canadian election? If so, Elections Canada may soon want to know who you are.
Think I'm kidding? Nope. The idea that Elections Canada should require registration of the identities of volunteers and hours worked in Canadian election campaigns has been revisited in recent weeks. The proposal even has some prominent backers, including Tyler Sommers, co-ordinator of the advocacy group Democracy Watch and former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley. And recent reports suggest the federal government might include such a measure in an upcoming democratic reform package.
Proponents of volunteer registration argue the measure is necessary to prevent corporations and unions from exercising influence in spite of the ban on corporate and union financial contributions to political parties. Unscrupulous officials, the argument goes, may thwart the ban by instead giving employees time off with the understanding they will volunteer on constituency campaigns for a particular party. As Toronto lawyer Peter Rosenthal observed, "A person giving 100 hours is giving a lot more than $100." Volunteer registration and subsequent reviews of hours worked by Elections Canada would help to prevent this.
Nevertheless, volunteer registration is a bad idea, for three reasons.
First, no evidence exists there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Elections Canada already bans in-kind contributions from corporations and unions (which covers employee time off to volunteer on campaigns). The agency reports no charges have been laid "in recent memory" with respect to this form of in-kind contribution, a clear indication the urgency of the situation has been overstated.
Second, even if there were an epidemic of corporate and union employees volunteering on company time, registration would do little to address the problem. The reason is rooted in the nature of Canadian constituency campaigns: The bulk of campaigns consist of volunteers who drop in to help out. These volunteers carry out the meat-and-potato functions of local campaigns: literature drops, door-knocking, delivering lawn signs, getting out the vote and other invaluable functions. The irregular hours these volunteers keep lend local campaigns their familiar chaotic character. Anyone who has ever participated in a riding campaign will realize registering and tracking the hours of these erratic volunteers in most campaigns is all but impossible.
Registering volunteers will also add another layer of paperwork to the workload of already stressed-out campaign organizers, who must comply with exacting reporting requirements for raising and spending money. Furthermore, Elections Canada has demonstrated a willingness to aggressively pursue local campaigns for even minor accounting disagreements. It is reasonable to expect the agency will conduct itself similarly while auditing lists of volunteers and hours worked. This will serve to depress participation in local campaigns.
Finally, registering campaign volunteers will have negative democratic consequences. It is likely many Canadians who casually volunteer in the ridings during election campaigns will balk at the idea of registering their names, tracking their hours and having their identities forwarded to a government agency to be audited. These former volunteers can be expected to drop out of the process.
This would be a shame since local campaigns are chronically short of volunteers. Political scientist Ken Carty found only 16 per cent of campaigns in the 1988 election had sufficient numbers of volunteers -- that number has undoubtedly declined further still. Furthermore, volunteering in riding campaigns is an important form of civic participation for many Canadians, one that should be encouraged in an era of citizen disengagement from politics. Registration will likely serve to deprive parties of volunteers -- further severing their linkages to citizens -- and chase volunteers away from engaging with politics.
Volunteer registration is an example of poor public policy. It is a solution to a non-existent problem; it will do nothing to address this problem in any case; and it is likely to have negative democratic consequences. Constituency campaigns are the vibrant centres of democratic engagement and participation during Canadian election campaigns. We should see to it that they are not further stifled by red tape.
Royce Koop is an assistant professor, department of political studies, University of Manitoba.