Election Rules for Non-profits: Explained

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Participation Wednesday, August 12, 2015 View Count = 9437

Election Rules for Non-profits: Explained

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Non-profits play a crucial role in making democracy vibrant and effective. However, this role can be hampered if non-profits aren’t sure how election rules apply to them or their activities. To help deal with this confusion, we here at Samara have put together an FAQ which we hope will help non-profits pursue their mission and communicate with clarity and confidence this campaign season.

The rules we’re talking about here are specifically for non-profits that are not charities. Charitable organizations (like Samara) have more stringent rules they must adhere to.


1. What are the rules that apply to non-profits?

When it comes to the election period, non-profits are considered “third parties” in Canadian election law. This means that they are lumped into the same category as any group that is neither a political party nor a registered charity. Corporations, unions, individuals, non-profits—all are categorized as third parties and treated the same under federal election rules.


2. Can non-profits be partisan?

Like all third parties, non-profits are under no restrictions in the content or partisan nature of their advertisements. They are allowed to support parties, individual candidates, and promote any specific policy proposals advanced during an election.

These activities are subject to limits, however. Anything that qualifies as “election advertising” (more on that below) must adhere to the following two conditions: First, if a third party intends to spend more than $500 on partisan promotion, they must register with Elections Canada. (Even if they plan to spend slightly less than that limit, the safest route is to register.) Second, a third party is restricted in how much money they are allowed to spend during the campaign period.


3. What are the spending limits for the campaign?

The spending limits, originally set for a 37-day campaign period, have been roughly doubled due to the early start to the campaign. The limit on total election advertising expenses for a third party is now $439,410.81 and no more than $8,788.22 in any one riding. (Source: Elections Canada.)


4. So what counts as “election advertising”?

According to Elections Canada:

“Election advertising is the transmission to the public by any means during an election period of an advertising message that promotes or opposes a registered party or the election of a candidate, including one that takes a position on an issue with which a registered party or candidate is associated.

However, it does not include

  • the transmission to the public of an editorial, a debate, a speech, an interview, a column, a letter, a commentary, or news
  • the distribution of a book, or the promotion of the sale of a book, for no less than its commercial value, if the book was planned to be made available to the public regardless of whether there was to be an election
  • the transmission of a document directly by a person or a group to their members, employees or shareholders, as the case may be
  • the transmission by an individual, on a non-commercial basis on the Internet, of that individual’s personal political views.”

If that seems a little vague to you, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Elections Canada themselves have said that it’s hard to determine what would be exempt from election advertising rules until they see the exact nature of the content. So the best policy is that if you’re at all unsure, you should contact Elections Canada with your content to get their feedback.

The good news is that Elections has told us that “the Agency is here to help” with these issues. They are eager to assist organizations in navigating these rules, so don’t hesitate to contact them (their contact info is included under #6).


5. Okay, what about promoting a non-partisan issue?

Many non-profits are not concerned with endorsing a party so much as promoting the importance of a particular issue or set of issues. Technically, promoting the importance of a topic (for example, distributing a flyer that says “Keep funding for healthcare in mind when you vote”) is not subject to the limits on partisan advertising.

However, it’s easy for these lines to be blurred—an issue can easily become associated with a particular party, or a party can adopt a new policy position partway through a campaign, such that what was intended to be a non-partisan position can be construed as a partisan one. This potential confusion is hinted at in the definition of election advertising above, that includes “a position on an issue with which a registered party or candidate is associated.”

For this reason, the safest course for a non-profit planning to advertise in any way is to contact Elections Canada and get official advice (preferably in writing) on whether or not to register themselves as an advertiser.


6. Where can I find out more?

If you’d like to learn more, check out this in-depth handbook from Elections Canada about the rules for third-party advertisers. Or try contacting the department, either:

In the meantime, you might want to check out these great examples of non-profits getting involved in the election:

  • The CAHC (Canadian Association of Community Health Centres) has issued a “call to action”, asking the federal parties to commit to four policy areas of concern.
  • Social Planning Toronto has released a series of fact sheets introducing 14 social issues, including prompts of questions voters may want to ask of their candidates.
  • Food Secure Canada is running a program called “Eat Think Vote” in an effort to promote national food policy.

These are just a few examples—and of course don’t forget Samara’s own Vote PopUp, Everyday Political Citizen, and CitizenSparks as well!


Remember, the participation of non-profits is a vital element of our democracy. So get out there and get involved!


**Special thanks with this post to Bill Schaper of Imagine Canada for his advice and insight on election rules for nonprofits, and to Elections Canada for their guidance.


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