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Analysis

6 ways to clean up election law to ensure fair People’s Vote

by Luke Lythgoe | 28.01.2019

The 2016 referendum was blighted by cheating. There’s much that can be done to stop a repeat if we get a new vote.

Fixing the electoral rules is part of the answer, as the new interim boss of the Electoral Commission told The House magazine. The watchdog can do some useful things on its own. But, in some cases, Parliament may need to change the law.

Here are six areas which could be addressed ahead of a new referendum.

Transparency on social media

People need to be made much more aware when they are looking at political campaigning material online, and of who is trying to influence them. This could be achieved, for instance, with banners on social media posts. A less obtrusive, but still helpful, suggestion is a digital imprint on social media content detailing the publishing organisation and who is responsible for paying for it. This essentially brings rules for print media into digital campaigning.

Greater financial transparency of campaigners

The Electoral Commission is essentially a financial watchdog. This role could be made easier by tightening up current rules. For example, speedier reporting of spending by campaigners – from up to six months after the event, down to three or even two months. The ability for the Commission to go into organisations and access financial information during a campaign would also help tackle public concerns that the watchdog only addresses rule-breaking long after the event.

Restrictions outside the ‘regulatory period’

Many of the Commission’s powers are limited to spending inside the relatively brief “regulatory period” of a campaign. This has raised questions on both sides of the 2016 debate: for example, Arron Banks’ spending ahead of the campaigning period, or the government’s £9 million mailshot. Could more spending restrictions in the lead up to the regulatory period be the answer?

More clarity on the rules

Better guidance on definitions for terms like “political campaigning” and “coordinated campaigning” would limit attempts at rule-bending and put organisations off challenging accusations after the campaign. We saw this after 2016 with the coordinated campaigning of Vote Leave and BeLeave towards the end of the referendum.

Bigger sanctions

Electoral Commission fines are currently capped at £20,000 per offence. The watchdog’s previous boss told MPs last year that this was often seen as just the “cost of doing business” by campaigners. The new interim head said: “There should be an ability in the really egregious cases for us to fine at a level that matters.”

Better digital literacy for the public

Between now and a People’s Vote taking place, there could be a concerted effort by government and watchdogs, including the Electoral Commission, to raise public awareness around political campaigning on social media. Even if there is no time to meaningfully change the rules, people’s misconceptions can at least be challenged. An ad campaign could point out, for example, that voters are not protected online by the same rules governing broadcast media, and therefore should approach political content with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Fixing electoral rules isn’t the only way of ensuring a cleaner campaign than 2016. Information law also needs to be tightened to stop fake news being sprayed around social media. So does media regulation, to prevent the press peddling lies and ensure the BBC challenges inaccuracies. MPs themselves need to be more honest – and, as the Queen said last week, respect other people’s views.

If we can do all this, a People’s Vote could help heal our divided country.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

7 Responses to “6 ways to clean up election law to ensure fair People’s Vote”

  • There were millions of people who were not allowed to vote in 2016, although they were most affected by the loss of freedom of movement. I’m talking of Europeans living in the UK and UK citizens in the EU. As most of those could vote in EU (and other elections) their exclusion from the franchise was manifestly unfair. Expect fireworks if they are kept out of the next referendum too.

  • Like it or not, it appears inevitable that we are leaving in a couple of months. INFACTS should now start campaigning to rejoin ASAP. I am confident that when the great unwashed realise what they have done, there will be much clamoring to return to the fold. Of course, this will mean no Rebate and joining Schengen. Tough, suck it up.

  • Ah, thanks John for reminding me why I feel totally right to have voted leave!
    From one of the great unwashed to one of our enlightened superior minded EU zealots.

  • You’ve not mentioned the crowd funding support required to prosecute Boris Johnson for his alleged criminal lies. Successfully prosecuting this type of abuse would make the Ombudsman redundant?