The province is the only jurisdiction in Canada of those that regulate third-party advertising in which third parties don't face advertising spending or contribution limits, chief electoral officer Greg Essensa said in his report on the 2014 general election.
Since third-party advertising regulations were introduced in 2007, the number of third parties has more than tripled and in recent elections, and certain third parties have "significantly" increased what they spend on advertising, Essensa said.
"By 2014, spending by third parties had increased by over 400 per cent for a total of $8.4 million," he said in a statement. "This lack of regulation is creating an uneven playing field that can potentially influence electoral outcomes."
Essensa recommended that an independent body be established to investigate options for strengthening third-party advertising rules, including spending and contribution limits, reporting requirements and registration and anti-collusion provisions.
Progressive Conservative Bill Walker said he would be introducing a private member's bill on the issue, saying clamping down on third-party spending would create a more level playing field.
"When someone, or some groups, can come in and actually influence significantly with money and buy an election in essence, I think it had huge bearing in certain ridings and I think that's inappropriate," he said.
In his report the chief electoral officer recommended a number of legislative changes the government could make to improve elections for voters and candidates, and a number of needed technological upgrades.
Legislation currently specifies fixed election dates as the first Thursday in October every four years, but Essensa recommended changing that to a fixed date in early June. That way they would not occur so close to municipal elections, creating voter fatigue, the voting day would see more hours of sunlight and fewer religious holidays occur in June than the fall, he said. And, he noted, if elections were to be held on weekends, voter turnout may increase.
Changes in communications and the prominence of social media may also necessitate legislative changes, Essensa's report said.
According to current legislation, Elections Ontario must publish advanced poll locations in newspapers, but Essensa said it's not only "prohibitively expensive, but also inefficient as newspaper readership has been declining over the last decade."
The government should amend the legislation to allow the chief electoral officer to use other communication channels, such as online and social media, Essensa recommended.
Ontario should consider following the lead of several other provinces and allow provisional registration of future voters at age 16, Essensa recommended. The registration wouldn't be active until their 18th birthday, but registering people early could increase voter engagement and working with schools could ensure maximum registration, he said.
Essensa's report also found that more people — about 31,000 — declined their ballots than ever before, though turnout increased from 48.2 per cent in 2011 to 52.1 per cent last year.
Essensa estimated the 2014 election cost about $80 million.