Political Financing Handbook for Third Parties, Financial Agents and Auditors – June 2021
To be used for non-fixed-date general elections and by-elections
6. Regulated Activities: Partisan Activities in an Election Period
This chapter looks at the "partisan activity" category of regulated activities that take place during the election period and provides examples.
It covers the following topics:
- What is a partisan activity?
- Partisan activity expenses
- Other rules: Telephone calls and mass text messaging
What is a partisan activity?
What is a partisan activity in general?
A partisan activity is an activity carried out by a third party to promote or oppose:
- a registered party or eligible party, or
- the election of a candidate, potential candidate, nomination contestant or leader of a registered party or eligible party
Any activity may qualify as a partisan activity, including but not limited to:
- making telephone calls (see Telephone calls in the election period below)
- sending text messages or using other messaging services
- creating and sending out organic social media content, whether done by humans or bots (note that paying for sponsored content in the election period is election advertising, not a partisan activity)
- canvassing door to door
- holding get-out-the-vote activities and rallies
- creating a campaign website
An activity is not a partisan activity if it promotes or opposes a political entity only by taking a position on an issue with which the political entity is associated.
Note: Partisan activities or election surveys conducted by provincially registered political parties are not regulated activities for the purposes of the Canada Elections Act.
- During the election period, the third party's employees canvass door to door and ask voters to sign a petition in support of a health issue. They do not talk about any political entities at the door, though one candidate in the riding is closely associated with the issue. This is not a partisan activity. The expenses are not regulated and do not have to be reported.
- The third party creates a website about an economic issue. It sends candidates a questionnaire about their position on the issue and publishes the responses on the website during the election period. The responses are posted without an evaluation or commentary that indicates approval or disapproval. This is not a partisan activity. The expenses are not regulated and do not have to be reported.
- A third party that exists year-round has employees who take calls from the public. During the election period, in the course of some conversations, the employees make comments that promote or oppose a registered party or candidate. Partisan activities have to be authorized by a third party. These telephone calls are a partisan activity of the employer only if the employees were directed to use them as a means to push out partisan messages. If the employees were not directed in this way, then the calls are not a partisan activity.
- A third party creates a website with riding-by-riding poll results to encourage strategic voting against a registered party. The website does not directly say which party is being opposed, but it flags certain ridings as winnable with strategic voting and it is clear from the analysis which party is being opposed. This website is a partisan activity.
Activities with members, employees or shareholders are included
An activity is a partisan activity (but not election advertising) even if it is directed at the third party's own members, employees or shareholders. The activity is captured whether it is done in person or remotely, one at a time or in groups.
For example, if a third party surveys its members about their voting intentions and then sends them an email promoting the top choice, both these are regulated: the first is an election survey (see Chapter 7), while the second is a partisan activity.
The law excepts a communication from being advertising if it is sent to members, employees or shareholders because it is transmitted to a private group. This simply means that the message is not subject to the tagline requirement, online ad platform registry or ad blackout period. It can still be a partisan activity.
Fundraising activities are excluded
A fundraising activity that the third party organizes primarily to raise money for its regulated expenses is not a partisan activity, even if it identifies a specific registered party or candidate.
But not all activities that bring in contributions are "fundraising activities." For in-person or virtual events organized by the third party:
- If there is no admission fee, the event is not a fundraising activity. It is regulated as a partisan activity, even if funds are raised in other ways during the event.
- If tickets are sold or entry fees are collected, the event is a fundraising activity rather than a partisan activity. The related expenses—other than for advertising—are not subject to the spending limit.
Note: Even if an event is not a partisan activity, advertising before the event (such as invitations) or at the event (such as pamphlets) is regulated if it meets the definition of election advertising.
For direct mail or phone calls, including a request for contributions in a partisan communication does not change it from a partisan activity to a fundraising activity. The full expense is subject to the spending limit.
Some administrative costs related to fundraising are also excluded from partisan activity expenses. These include expenses incurred to process contributions (such as bank charges, credit card processing fees and labour costs for data entry) and backend costs for website contribution pages or online stores.
- The third party sells tickets for $100 to a fundraising dinner during the election period. The funds will be used in part to support the third party's regulated activities. While the fundraising event is not regulated as a partisan activity, the contributions it receives are regulated and must be reported. As well, a banner at the event promotes a candidate, so the third party must report an election advertising expense for the banner.
- During the election period, the third party sends text messages to electors in a riding, calling for the defeat of a registered party. The message also solicits a contribution, stating that every donated dollar will help. This communication is a partisan activity. The fact that it includes a fundraising component does not exempt it from regulation.
Media activities and certain publications are excluded
Media activities such as news, editorials and interviews conducted by ongoing media organizations are not partisan activities, even if they could be perceived to favour one registered party or candidate over others. News media organizations are not themselves exempted, but rather the nature of their activities normally falls outside the scope of regulated activities.
This is also true of publications that regularly present news and research, such as policy magazines and academic journals, or previously planned one-time publications, such as books that are being sold for no less than their commercial value.
Where a publication is not a regulated activity, promoting the sale of the publication using reasonable advertising practices for that medium is also not a regulated activity.
An activity or publication whose purpose is to promote or oppose a registered party or candidate, rather than to offer media or academic services, may be a partisan activity. All the facts of a case must be taken into consideration, including the following:
- whether the activity would have gone ahead without an election
- whether the activity is carried out year-round or on a regular basis
- whether the organization uses the activity as a main source of revenue (including to draw in advertising or subscription sales)
- whether the activity was partisan in nature
- any relationship between the third party organization or individual with a registered party or candidate
Partisan activity expenses
Expenses incurred for organizing partisan activities and carrying them out during the election period are subject to the expenses limit, no matter when the expenses were incurred.
This includes any non-monetary contribution received to the extent that the property or service is used in relation to organizing or carrying out partisan activities.
- During the election period, the third party organizes a door-to-door campaign in a riding and offers rides to voters who intend to vote for a particular candidate. This is a partisan activity. The expenses for organizing and carrying out the activity, including planning, transportation and remuneration paid to canvassers, are partisan activity expenses subject to the limit in the riding for the election period.
- During the election period, the third party uses a catering service to organize a barbecue outside a candidate's campaign office, drawing attention to the candidate and promoting their platform. It is done without the candidate's prior knowledge. This is a partisan activity. The catering company does not charge for the service, so its commercial value (the amount the company would normally charge for catering a barbecue) is a non-monetary contribution. The same amount is also a partisan activity expense of the third party and is subject to the limit in the riding for the election period.
- The third party hires a calling service provider to conduct calls in the province during the election period, informing voters about the third party's position on a specific issue. During the calls, voters are also encouraged to vote for a registered party. This is a partisan activity. Expenses incurred for the calls are partisan activity expenses subject to the overall limit for the election period.
Other rules: Telephone calls and mass text messaging
Telephone calls in the election period
Calls made by third parties to voters during the election period are partisan activities if they promote or oppose a political party, candidate, potential candidate, nomination contestant or party leader. Expenses incurred, including the cost of production and distribution, are partisan activity expenses.
Note: Even if a call is not a partisan activity, the third party may be subject to the rules below.
Whether or not telephone calls are a partisan activity, third parties must follow certain rules if they use voter contact calling services. These are services involving the making of calls during an election period for any purpose related to an election, including:
- promoting or opposing a registered party, its leader, a candidate or a nomination contestant or any position on an issue with which such a party or person is associated
- encouraging electors to vote or to refrain from voting
- providing information about the election, including information about voting hours and the location of polling stations
- gathering information about how electors voted in past elections or will vote in the election or their views on a registered party, its leader, a candidate or a nomination contestant or any issue with which such a party or person is associated
- raising funds for a registered party, a registered association, a candidate or a nomination contestant
If a script is used for the telephone calls, the third party must keep the following for one year after the end of the election period:
- a copy of each unique script used
- a record of every date on which the script was used
- a list of every telephone number called
The rules are administered and enforced by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).The Commissioner of Canada Elections is responsible for enforcing the requirement to keep a copy of the scripts and recorded messages.
Note: For the rules on voter contact calling services, please refer to the CRTC's Voter Contact Registry web page. A link to the page is posted on the Elections Canada website.
Mass text messaging
Mass text messages sent by third parties during the election period are partisan activities if they promote or oppose a political party, candidate, potential candidate, nomination contestant or party leader. Expenses incurred, including the cost of production and distribution, are partisan activity expenses.
The CRTC regulates text messages of a third party under Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation only if the messages are commercial in nature. A text whose primary purpose is to solicit a contribution is excluded from that definition. This means that text messages asking for an elector's vote or financial support are not regulated by the CRTC.
Since a text message is not election advertising, there is no requirement to identify the sender under the Canada Elections Act, though it is recommended as a best practice.
Note: For more information on text messaging, please refer to the CRTC's web page entitled "Frequently Asked Questions About Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation."