Election rules need urgent fixes ahead of People’s Vote

by Luke Lythgoe | 30.07.2018

The “fake news” report from the Commons’ DCMS committee shows our democracy is short-circuiting. There are several flashing lights on the UK’s democratic dashboard: some the result of an outdated system straining in a digital world, others of saboteurs running amok. Below are eight key problems that need fixing before a People’s Vote if a new poll is to be more reliable than 2016.

1. Inaccurate online ads

Many of the digital ads deployed by the Leave campaign were outright lies – InFacts picked out the most egregious here. The report recommends applying rules to social media similar to those TV and radio broadcasters follow already, on accuracy and impartiality. Ofcom, the UK’s communications watchdog,  will publish plans for greater social media regulation in the autumn.

2. Collusion to get round spending rules

This month an Electoral Commission investigation found that Vote Leave managed to exceed its referendum spending cap by almost £500,000 by working under a “common plan” with smaller group BeLeave. The official leave campaign fronted by Boris Johnson also returned an incomplete spending report with over £230,000 reported incorrectly. Rules around what counts as campaigns working together, and how that is reported, need to be tightened up and made clearer.

3. Alleged data abuses unresolved

Serious allegations of campaigns breaching voters’ data privacy in order to target them with political ads still hang over the referendum. Did Canadian firm AIQ, which worked for Vote Leave, use Facebook data harvested by Cambridge Analytica? Did Leave.EU, the rival campaign backed by Nigel Farage, use Ukip data or customer data from Arron Banks’ insurance companies in its campaigning?

The Information Commissioner’s Office is still investigating these cases over two years since the referendum. This is unsatisfactory, and suggests its powers and resources need beefing up.

The Electoral Commission is still investigating the source of Banks’ money. It has also taken a frightfully long time to complete even those investigations that it has finished. This suggests its powers need beefing up too.

4. Micro-targeting

The ability to get an incredibly tailored message to a tiny group of people, out of sight of others who may refute it, was a very powerful tool in 2016. The MPs’ report suggests new laws on the minimum number of voters who must see a specific message.

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5. Who’s ad?

Unlike print and broadcast media, digital political ads don’t need to be “imprinted” with the organisation behind them. Vote Leave has insisted this wasn’t a problem in 2016 because Facebook posts always show who a message is from. Even if this is the case, that’s not to say it won’t be a problem in the future. Digital graphics should bear the political organisation’s name.

6. Early spending for late rewards

The rules around spending ahead of the official campaign period also need tightening. The Electoral Commission found that Leave.EU paid for services from a US strategy consultancy before the regulated period started on April 15, but that Leave.EU made use of these services during the campaign period.

7. Foreign interference

Allegations of connections to Russia have been swirling around Arron Banks, who is believed to have given at least £8.4 million to the Leave campaign – probably the biggest donation in UK political history. Most recently a Channel 4 investigation has alleged that Banks asked Russians for money. An Electoral Commission investigation into Banks was opened back in November – this is far too slow and a sign that the commission’s resources and powers need expanding. The National Crime Agency is also reportedly investigating Banks. There needs to be more urgency around even a whiff of interference by a foreign power in our democracy. A “co-ordinated structure”, perhaps along the lines of the Mueller Inquiry in America, suggests the DCMS committee report.

8. Fines

Currently the Electoral Commission can only fine rule-breakers a maximum of £20,000 for each offence. In May, Leave.EU were fined £70,000 for multiple breaches of electoral law, including exceeding its spending limit and delivering incomplete and inaccurate spending reports. A separate investigation fined Vote Leave £61,000, BeLeave’s Darren Grimes £20,000 and Veterans for Britain £250 for joint working and returning an incomplete and inaccurate spending report. Meanwhile, David Halsall from Vote Leave , Darren Grimes from BeLeave and Liz Bilney from Leave.EU have all been referred to the police in relation to false declarations of campaign spending.

But are the penalties stiff enough? One witness to the DCMS inquiry said some organisations would just see it as “the cost of doing business”. Without adequate deterrence, people will go on committing crimes.

If we get a People’s Vote, these issues need tightening up. This might mean short-term fixes in the primary legislation which brings a People’s Vote through Parliament. In the long term, we need to shore up our democracy for the future. That requires being able to adapt to fast-moving technological developments. We also need to make sure UK citizens are digitally literate – knowing their data rights, being aware of political campaigning online. If a more resilient democracy emerges from the abuses of 2016, that’s at least one silver lining to all this Brexit mess.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

5 Responses to “Election rules need urgent fixes ahead of People’s Vote”

  • The fines should be impose on the organisation But each individual in the contravening organisation should face a prison term. And since the investigations my take a long time the threat shouldh ang over the villains for their whole life.

  • Whilst a People’s Vote seems the best way to extract ourselves out of the mess, alot would depend on the question asked. If it ends up as a choice between a Hard WTO rules version and a Theresa May compromise version, neither would offer a satisfactory solution for many people. There is very obviously a widespread view within the country that the only logical solution to our current dillema is to remain in the EU. It is therefore only right that this option can be voted for.
    However, if 3 choices were to be offered on the ballot paper, it could be interpreted as being biased to either the more Brexit or Remain inclined supporters, as it would split the vote of one ‘side’.
    It underlines the point that referenda are very tricky tools for governments to apply. Even so, in this case, Cameron let the genie out of the bottle, and it is only right that on Brexit, the ‘will of the people’ continues to apply.

  • These are all serious glitches in a no-longer-fit-for purpose voting system that need to be fixed if we are to have any confidence in the validity of a People’s Vote.

    Thank you for pointing this out so clearly.