Local election changes will be costly, confusing, unnecessary — Alberta NDP

New local election rules will drive up costs, confuse voters and put councillors into continuous fundraising loops, municipal affairs critic Kyle Kasawski predicted in a recent interview.

Kasawski, the NDP member for Sherwood Park, said changes to local elections within Bill 20 don’t address actual problems he’s heard Albertans raise.

“The elimination of electronic vote tabulating for municipal elections is just pure conspiracy-based decision-making,” said Kasawski. “There was no call for that from any of the results of the last election. They were run well.”

He added: “And as far as I know, there's no scandal coming out of the last election with any doubt about the integrity of the results when it comes to voter ID.”

The far-reaching Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act, 2024 received royal assent on May 30. The new legislation cancels electronic vote tabulation, disallows vouching for the age and identity of voters, and changes campaign donation rules, limits and timelines.

Vouching has a registered voter attest that details about another voter are true, allowing the latter to receive a ballot and cast a vote. It will continue to be allowed for a voter’s address.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver said election procedural changes will make the work of scrutineers more valid and instil confidence in results.

“Paper ballots being counted has worked successfully for over 100 years in Alberta,” said McIver. “And people trust the results.”

He said the province is creating systems — modeled on what’s called a navigation and support centre in Edmonton — to make sure voters without permanent addresses get official government identification in one day.

“To be clear, we are very concerned about making sure everybody gets the vote, even though they might be low-income people, they might be homeless or they might not have a permanent address,” said McIver, the UCP member for Calgary-Hays.

Kasawski said he watched what appeared to be on-the-spot planning around ID access unfold in real time in the legislative assembly. That impromptu process from the UCP is symptomatic of the rushed way the legislation came into being and its unwieldy scope, he said.

Regardless of how the ID plan comes together, voter validation will no longer align with practices used in provincial and federal elections, Kasawski added. “I just don't think voters are going to appreciate that confusion.”

The legislation also allows piloting in Calgary and Edmonton of candidates running under the banners of political parties. And it changes campaign finance rules, through provisions like allowing donations to candidates outside of an election year.

Donations to candidates drop to $5,000 aggregate per donor, per calendar year from $5,000 per candidate, per election year.

For example, a donor used to be able to kick in $20,000 divided equally among four candidates during an election year. Under the new rules, the donor would be able to give only $5,000 total to one candidate or divided among candidates – but do so every year.

That’s because campaign periods are now continual, so a donation total resets annually instead every four years.

Unions and corporations are now in the donor mix, where before they could not contribute. The same limit and yearly reset apply.

The legislation also explains how donations to third-party advertisers can be about issues and events, not just endorsements of candidates. The aggregate dollar figure drops to $5,000 from $30,000, and the donation is allowed during the election period only. Election periods start May 31 of set local election years.

McIver said candidates aren’t incentivized to add too much to their war-chests because they’ll have to turn over all but $1,000 of unspent money to charity anyway, once a campaign ends.

The changes will help make sure “the campaign is about ideas and not money.”

He continued: “We think this will actually tame down some of the ridiculous financial gymnastics that have gone on.”

But Kasawski said councillors will be distracted from the practical and less ideological business of serving electors and solving local problems.

“Our municipal councillors are going to be in constant election mode, constant fundraising mode,” he said.

Election procedures are not the only controversial parts of the new legislation.

Other provisions allow the province to order elector votes on the removal of councillors. Cabinet must first determine that a councillor is unable, unwilling or refusing to perform elected duties.

Cabinet can also look at unethical or illegal behaviour by a councillor, then require a vote on removal if it decides one serves the public interest.

And the province can make municipalities revoke or revise bylaws that cabinet determines clash with provincial policy, contravene the Constitution, or exceed the scope or authority of the Municipal Government Act or any other provincial statute.

The NDP and municipalities have characterized as overreach the removal of councillors and the revoking or amending of bylaws. But the UCP says they clarify and speed up processes that the province is already allowed to implement under the Constitution.

Among less controversial parts of the new act are those that pave the way for new affordable housing in municipalities.

The act lays the groundwork for housing companies run by municipalities and non-profits to develop projects exempt from property taxes.

Tax exemptions reduce development and operating costs of housing units, and those savings can be passed along to the people who live in them.

The legislation also makes it possible to develop brownfields for housing through the province’s Community Revitalization Levy Program. Municipalities can use it to borrow against property taxes, including a special levy, that they collect for up to 40 years.

Brownfields, under the province’s definition, are contaminated or possibly contaminated. Although vacant, derelict or underutilized, they’re considered suitable for development or redevelopment. But clean-up often drives up costs.

George Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Macleod Gazette