North·Analysis

What does it cost to win an election in the N.W.T.?

Last week, Elections NWT released campaign finance reports for 2019. Analyst David Wasylciw dug into the numbers, dating back to 2007, to find out who funded whose campaign, and how much they spent.

Last week, Elections NWT released campaign finance reports for 2019

David Wasylciw writes that numbers only tell part of the election story, but they reflect a lot of the ways candidates feel the need to reach out to us. Often, campaigns that show the broadest support with donors or lawn signs have a leg up, but not always. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

Last week, Elections NWT released campaign finance reports for the 2019 N.W.T. election. The reports detailed $356,000 in fundraising and over $420,000 in spending for candidates: who funded their campaign, where the money went, and how much they spent. 

These numbers are interesting, and worth a look. Transparency is key, especially when it comes to newly-elected MLAs. However, the numbers can also reveal some interesting trends in how campaign spending is changing in the territory, and how successful campaigns are funded.

In this analysis, we'll take a look at this year's numbers, seeing who spent the most, and how those donations came in. We'll also take a look at the reports in comparison to previous elections dating back to 2007.

What does it cost to win?

There's no specific price to pay to win a campaign, but the most candidates are allowed to spend is $30,000. In the past, unsuccessful candidates have spent as much as $29,165 (Yellowknife Centre's Sue Glowach, 2007), while winners have spent as little as $1,045 (Mackenzie Delta's current MLA, Frederick Blake Jr., in 2011).

On average, since 2007, election campaigns have cost $8,131, while successful campaigns have averaged $10,935 — but this changes significantly when you remove Yellowknife from the equation.

Outside the capital, campaigns' average cost is $5,497, while successful campaigns cost an average of $7,506. In Yellowknife, that price jumps considerably, with campaigns carrying an average cost of $12,562; successful campaigns jump to $16,812.

In 2019, seven successful candidates — Jackie Jacobson, Kevin O'Reilly, Caroline Wawzonek, Julie Green, Lesa Semmler, Caitlin Cleveland, and Caroline Cochrane — spent more than the average.

The most resourceful new MLA was Deh Cho's Ronald Bonnetrouge. He spent only $2,004, less than acclaimed Mackenzie Delta MLA Blake Jr., who spent $2,533.

Taken together, campaigns for successful candidates spent just over $168,000 and received 6,115 votes, an average of $27.50 per vote.

Who's paying?

Overall, candidates in the last election raised $420,177, with 40 per cent coming from individuals, 30 per cent coming from businesses, and 25 per cent from candidates themselves. The rest came from organizations like Indigenous governments and local unions.

This is different from federal and several provincial campaigns, where only individual contributions are allowed.

Last year's election marks a record high for self funding. The average amount contributed by candidates to their own campaigns nearly doubled, from $1,075 in 2015 to $1,860.

The N.W.T. is always a very generous place, with over 360 individuals contributing to campaigns last year. Over 40 people contributed to multiple campaigns, with retired MLA Wendy Bisaro being the most prolific individual contributor, donating to nine.

This election also saw contributions from the Union of Northern Workers for the first time since at least 2007. The UNW donated $1,500 — the maximum allowed — to successful candidates O'Reilly and Shane Thompson and unsuccessful candidates Kieron Testart and Hughie Graham. The NWT Federation of Labour also donated $1,500 to O'Reilly. 

The North Slave Métis Alliance regularly contributes to two or three campaigns each election. In 2019, though, they were much more active, donating $1,500 each to seven Yellowknife-area campaigns: eventual cabinet members Cochrane, Wawzonek, and Katrina Nokleby, and unsuccessful candidates Testart, Patrick Scott, Arlene Hache, and Cory Vanthuyne.

Where's the money spent?

Elections can be a big boost to local businesses. In total, over $409,000 was spent in the 2019 campaign. Any unspent campaign funds must be donated to a local non-profit or the territory's Consolidated Revenue Fund.

During the election, 25 campaigns spent over $94,500 total at Signed, a Yellowknife-based graphic design and print shop, making it by far the most frequently used vendor. Other frequently used vendors include Home Hardware, Staples, Canada Post, Cabin Radio, Kopykat North and Northern News Services.

One noticeable trend is with campaign advertising. In 2007, not a single candidate declared any spending with Facebook, but last fall, eight separate campaigns spent a total of just under $2,000 with Facebook Inc. 

At the same time, in 2007, campaigns spent over $41,000 advertising with N.W.T. newspaper group Northern News Services Ltd. (NNSL). In 2019, only 10 campaigns reported advertising with NNSL, totalling just over $7,100. The difference in the ways of reaching potential voters — and the cost of doing so — will only continue to shift.

The numbers only tell part of the election story, but they reflect a lot of the ways candidates feel the need to reach out to us. Often, campaigns that show the broadest support with donors or lawn signs have a leg up, but not always.

If you want to dig a bit deeper into the numbers, you can find candidate finance reports for each electoral district on Elections NWT's website.

About the Author

David Wasylciw

Founder, OpenNWT

David Wasylciw is a small business owner and an advocate for more open and accountable government. In 2014, he founded OpenNWT, a non-profit that develops tools to make government information accessible to the public.

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