Feb 262011

Spending up fourfold, even as fewer voters cast ballots
By Amy Minsky, Postmedia News

OTTAWA, Feb. 18, 2011 (PostMedia) — Spending at Elections Canada more than quadrupled over a decade, growth the agency says is a symptom of major legislative changes and minority governments.
Overall spending, expected to reach $138.6 million this year, is up from $32 million in 1998-1999. If an election is called, the cost will grow by ±$350 million more.

The portion spent on programs—which goes toward enforcing party financing rules, public education and redrawing electoral boundaries, among other things—has swelled more than tenfold since the late 1990s. It’s expected to soar to $30.9 million by the end of this fiscal year, from $2.6 million in 1998-1999.

Ironically, the agency’s spending has grown even as voter turnout at federal elections has dropped. But experts say the spending spurt and the voter drop-off aren’t related. Elections Canada explains the spending pattern by saying it has been responsible in recent years for overseeing several complicated changes to the Canada Elections Act. These have included a ban on corporate donations, limits placed on individual contributions and legislation forcing voters to prove their identity and address before casting a ballot.

Additionally, the series of minority governments since 2004 has forced the agency to “be prepared at all times to conduct a federal election,” Elections Canada spokeswoman Diane Benson said.
Even so, Elections Canada also has consistently underestimated its annual budgeting requirements.

In the past five fiscal years, it has asked for a total of $105 million in extra funding—excluding 2008-2009, an election year that increased the estimated spending by an additional $350 million. Not counting that year, the additional funds requested represented increases of between 14 per cent and 46 per cent compared to the agency’s initial budgetary estimates. “Probably in itself, $100 million is not very much money,” said Conservative Senator Doug Finley. “But in relation to the annual moneys budgeted by Elections Canada, that seems to be an inordinate amount of (extra) money to ask in terms of your annual budget.”

For many federal agenies, requests for additional money must be voted on and approved in the Senate and the House of Commons. Other agencies, such as Elections Canada, however, do not require this sign-off. The agency operates with this independence in order to remove any implication of political partisanship when funds are voted, said Treasury Board expenditure management expert David Enns.

As the costs of programs and elections have ballooned, voter turnout has decreased. In the 1984 election, 75.3 per cent of the electorate cast ballots, while in the most recent election, only 58.8 per cent voted. The 2006 election was the only exception, when turnout increased by roughly four percentage points over the 2004 election. “You can’t really hold any one person or group responsible for the decline” in voter turnout, said Bruce Hicks, an associate with the Canada Research Chair in electoral studies.
“People have become more cynical. We’re seeing self-serving politicians and government corruption. And in Canada, rapid elections have caused fatigue. All of this has tapped into a disengaged voter.”

Regardless of how many people show up to vote, Elections Canada has to run the election. And with the current heightened election speculation, much of the funds Elections Canada requested this year will help prepare for a general election, Enns said. “Also, they use the funding for conducting by-elections, and specifically, this year there were three,” he said.
But federal by-elections are not uncommon.

“Since I have been involved in politics, there have been byelections pretty well every single year,” Finley said in response to Enns’ statement. “I know my party budgets accordingly . Why is it that Elections Canada seems incapable of doing this?”

Program spending at Elections Canada has increased by more than 10 times since the 1990s.

Fewer and fewer eligible voters have shown up at the polling booths.