Civil rights group argues for more open elections

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The B.C. Civil Liberties Association will argue today in B.C. Supreme Court that provisions in the Election Act that limit third party advertising during an election violate British Columbians’ rights to free speech and association. The BCCLA is also attacking parts of the law that require the media to include specific information when publishing election polls.

According to Art Grant, legal counsel for the BCCLA, limits on third party advertising unfairly drown out the voices of individuals and groups that want to be heard during an election, when free speech is most important:

The government will ask you to believe that they have done this to promote fairness. However, the contrary is true. This law privileges the existing political elites and severely limits opportunities for individuals and third parties to effectively shape political debate during an election. As such, the law is anti-democratic.

The law is based substantially on the report of the federal 1991 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform. The BCCLA takes the position that the Commission perceived citizen participation in interest groups, rather than political parties, as a threat to responsible government. The BCCLA has intervened in the case to challenge the government’s attempt to tell British Columbians how they ought to pursue their political interests.

The law was passed by the present provincial government several years ago in an attempt to overhaul an outdated system for regulating elections. The law now limits third parties to $5,000 in advertising during an election.

During the 1996 election, Gary Nixon allegedly advertised in excess of the limit and was fined under the Act. The Act permits a fine of ten times the amount in excess of the limit. He is now attacking the law as unconstitutional. Pacific Press Ltd. is also challenging the law both in regards to the advertising limits but also with respect to the provisions that require specific methodological information to be published in conjunction with the publication of opinion poll surveys. The two cases are being heard at the same time.