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Vancouver renters group balks at Elections BC enforcement

A non-partisan Vancouver group that advocates for renters is getting unwanted attention from the office that runs B.C.'s elections.

Organizers of the group Renters At Risk received a Nov. 4 letter from Elections B.C. saying they must register as an election advertiser because of their activities during the two October, 2008, by-elections. If the group fails to comply, penalties include up to a $10,000 fine and a year in jail.

“It seems to me preposterous,” said Stephen Hammond, a lawyer and member of the group. “What happened to the ability to have a disagreement with the government?”

The group is small and informal, he said. “We don't have a chair. There are no formal committees.” They have no office or phone.

All they do, he said, is meet in people's living rooms, run a website and organize the occasional educational forum.

The letter from an Elections B.C. official said the group appears to have broken the Election Act, which defines election advertising as “advertising used during a campaign period to promote or oppose, directly or indirectly, the election of a candidate or a registered political party.”

“Our review of the Renters at Risk Campaign website during the campaign periods of the Vancouver-Burrard and Vancouver-Fairview by-elections identified several instances of messaging that appeared to be election advertising,” the letter said. “This determination was based on materials on your website that describe past and current issues and legislation, associates them with registered political parties, and directly or indirectly takes a promotional or oppositional position.”

Renters At Risk is being treated the same as any other group that promotes a position before an election, said Kenn Faris, a spokesperson for Elections B.C.. The group's materials used slogans like "send the government a message" that imply people should vote for one party over another, he said. One of the posters in question remains available on the group's website.

The material came to Elections B.C.'s attention when someone complained after the by-elections, Faris said, adding that it clearly fits the "election advertising" definition. It is free to register, he said. "The staff here have been working closely with the organizers from Renters At Risk," he said. "I'm a bit surprised with the attention on this. The relations have been good."

The group wants government policies changed, Hammond acknowledged, but he insisted their approach is non-partisan. “Our whole purpose is about saying you need to change this legislation,” he said. “We don't care who makes the changes. We just want the changes.”

Groups have to register as soon as they spend any money, he said, and they have to provide financial reporting to Elections B.C. if they spend more than $500. While he said he can see the need to reduce the influence of big corporations or unions on elections, the B.C. rules surely were never meant to affect groups like his.

And while Elections B.C. enforces the Election Act, what the act says is up to the government. “This is a decision the government has made,” he said. “Most people don't believe that if you have a disagreement with the government you have to register. What country is this?”

Elections B.C.'s Faris said the relevant sections of the Election Act have been in place since 1996. "This is nothing new," he said. "We'll remain communicative and open to them and hopefully this can be resolved."

Hammond said the group is deciding whether or not to comply. “It would be our desire of desires the government will realize how stupid this is and back down,” he said. “If we do register we'll be making sure everyone we talk to knows that if you dissent with the government you have to register with the government to dissent.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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