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Understanding political financing

Rules governing interventions in the political debate

Summary

During the election period that precedes an election, electoral legislation governs partisan interventions by political parties, candidates and third parties. With some exceptions, an individual or organization not acting on behalf of a political party or candidate may not make a partisan intervention that involves incurring costs.

In this section

Applicable rules

During an election period

During the election period preceding an election, the rules governing political financing  and measures for the control of election expenses  provide a framework for political debates.

A key objective of measures for the control of election expenses is to ensure that all candidates and parties enjoy fair and equal opportunities. The system also aims to limit the influence of money in politics, to ensure that parties and candidates remain the focus of attention during an election period, and to promote public confidence in democratic institutions. That is why citizens, organizations and businesses cannot use their financial resources in order to influence the political debate.

During an election period, you are not allowed to make a political intervention that meets both of the following criteria:

  1. The intervention has a partisan effect or provides exposure to a party or candidate, such as by:
    • promoting or opposing the election of a candidate
    • propagating or opposing the program or policies of a candidate or party
    • approving or disapproving measures advocated or opposed by a candidate or party
    • approving or disapproving actions taken or proposed by a candidate or party
  2. The intervention involves incurring costs, including for:
    • designing and printing documents like posters or pamphlets
    • creating a website
    • buying social media advertisements

Such interventions constitute election expenses, which must be authorized and paid by the official agent of a political party or candidate.

Any expense incurred to give visibility to a candidate or political party—regardless of whether the visibility is positive, neutral or negative—constitutes an election expense. Even if it provides visibility to all candidates or parties in a fair manner, the intervention still constitutes an election expense (notwithstanding some exceptions). Accordingly, any direct or indirect references to one or more candidates, their actions or their positions may constitute election expenses.

These strict rules apply to provincial elections, municipal elections in municipalities with a population of 5,000 or more, as well as school elections.

Before the start of an election period

Partisan interventions are not considered election expenses in cases where any associated costs are incurred before the start of the election period. However, in cases where an intervention involves the use of certain goods or services both before and during an election period, that portion of the cost associated with use during the election period constitutes an election expense.

Want to express your political preferences or contribute to public debates?

You are free to participate in political debates by expressing your preferences and opinions, so long as it costs you nothing to do so. There must be absolutely no costs associated with the design, production, publication and distribution of your message. This rule applies to all third parties, including citizens, businesses, unions, non-profit organizations, legal persons and associations.

A free social media post (e.g., on Facebook or Twitter), even if it is of a partisan nature, does not constitute an election expense. However, posting a video montage on YouTube that includes images purchased from a photographer could be considered an election expense.

Examples of partisan interventions prohibited during an election period

  • An individual may not pay for the printing of a poster designed to promote a candidate or party in the individual’s workplace or in another public place.
  • A business may not buy advertising space in a newspaper to attack the position of a party or candidate on a particular issue.
  • A non-profit organization may not post an online PDF document that rates the policies of candidates running in the local municipality on a scale of 1 to 10.
  • A union may not pay for a Facebook advertisement that promotes or opposes a measure advocated by a party or candidate.
  • An association may not create a website to support a candidate or party, since costs will be incurred in creating and maintaining such a website.

Exceptions to the notion of election expenses

Every elector has the right to vote in a free and informed manner. The free exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Québec’s electoral legislation provides for exceptions to the notion of election expenses that allow third parties to participate in political debates in a way that helps keep electors informed.

If they fail to meet the conditions set out in the following directives, any costs associated with a third-party intervention constitute election expenses, which can only be incurred by the official agent of a political party or candidate.

A downloadable guide to understanding the rules governing the control of election expenses has been prepared for third parties  intending to intervene in political debates.

Public and other meetings

Different directives list the various rules applicable to organizing and holding of in-person and virtual public meetings during an election period: directive D-20 applies to provincial elections, directive D-M-24 applies to municipal elections and directive D-S-11 applies to school elections.

Public meetings

Under certain conditions, a non-partisan organization may hold a public meeting without having the associated costs considered election expenses. Public meetings are generally defined as meetings held before an audience. For example, a public meeting might feature a debate, a roundtable discussion or a speech.

The public meeting must be organized and held as part of the organization’s regular activities. In addition, the topics discussed must be related to the organization’s mission. The public meeting must not be organized directly or indirectly on behalf of any party or candidate. No partisan advertising may be conducted or distributed at the event.

The public meeting may be held virtually, broadcast simultaneously or recorded for broadcast at a later time.

Other meetings

One or more meetings may be organized, provided that all associated costs for the entire election period do not exceed $200. The meetings in question must not be organized directly or indirectly on behalf of a candidate or party.

By contrast, all costs associated with activities held by a partisan organization (e.g., the youth wing of a party or a party committee) during an election period must be treated as election expenses and be discharged by the official agent of a party or candidate.

Political program comparisons and use of hyperlinks

Directive D-31 lists all the rules that apply to publishing or broadcasting a political program comparison.

Under certain conditions, a non-partisan organization may publish or broadcast a political program comparison intended to inform electors about the positions of all candidates in a given electoral division or all authorized political parties.

The information may be gathered by means of a questionnaire sent to political parties or candidates, or through consultation of their official documents or websites.

However, the organization must meet certain conditions to ensure that the comparison is neutral and impartial. For instance, the organization must provide for the equitable representation, in both qualitative and quantitative terms, of all authorized political parties or all candidates in a given electoral division. The comparison cannot be accompanied by photos, videos, comments or analyses that endorse or criticize the content of the political programs. Nor can it promote or oppose any candidate or party. In other words, throughout the process, the organization must refrain from giving preferential or unfavourable treatment to any of the parties or candidates involved.

Furthermore, the political program comparison must be prepared as part of the organization’s regular activities and the topics addressed must relate to the organization’s mission.

Hyperlinks

A political program comparison may also consist of hyperlinks to the platforms of candidates or political parties. No partisan commentary or analysis may accompany this information.

Media

Directive D-32 describes the rules applicable to media outlets during an election period, including with respect to election advertising, as well as the circumstances under which certain exceptions apply.

Electoral legislation provides for certain exceptions to the rules governing the publication and broadcast of partisan content by media outlets (newspapers, periodicals, radio stations, television stations). Under certain conditions, the publication or broadcast of articles, editorials, news reports, interviews, columns, public affairs programs or letters to the editor may not constitute an election expense. Digital equivalents of newspapers, periodicals, radio stations and television stations are considered media outlets for these purposes.

See the Guidelines for the media during elections for a full overview of the applicable rules.

Private intervenors

Only an individual elector or a group primarily composed of electors can receive authorization as a private intervenor. A business, an association, a union or any other legal person cannot receive authorization, nor can it be part of an authorized group.

Under certain conditions, a private intervenor may incur advertising expenses to express opinions on a matter of public interest, without promoting or opposing any candidates or parties.

To learn more, review the full set of rules related to obtaining authorization as a private intervenor.

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