Public trust in voting could be at risk. Photo: Prospect composite

How the Electoral Commission came to embody Britain's political crisis

What happens if we stop trusting elections? As accusations of bias abound—and concerns are raised over the bodies that regulate political life—faith in democracy is in a perilous position
November 12, 2019

During the course of the 1826 general election, Quintin Dick’s bar bill came to £4,000—none of the drinks were for him. Dick, who represented six different constituencies from 1800 to 1852, was not the only politician in the 19th century buying votes but he was perhaps the most brazen. In one election, knowing it was illegal for the candidate himself to hand out money, he had his wife walk a few yards behind him, giving gold sovereigns to passing voters. Bernard Jenkin, who now represents one of Dick’s old seats, thinks he deserves the epithet “most corrupt MP ever.”

As long as there have been laws governing money in politics, there have been people searching for ways around them. Stop and think about the potential ways that the exercise, collection and counting of votes could be compromised, and it seems pretty miraculous that—despite the bitter disagreements of modern British politics—both political players and the mass of voters have assumed that election results can be trusted.

Victorian reforms—including the secret ballot, and new bars on corrupt practices—eventually called time on the “treating” of men like Dick. But today, just as in the early 19th century, the laws that govern elections appear alarmingly weak. “Our democratic system is open to massive abuse,” warns the Tory MP Damian Collins, whose Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee has investigated the threat of disinformation in elections. The punishments imposed on those who break the law are “ridiculously low,” according to the Electoral Commission. Too many political parties and campaign groups view them as “the cost of doing business,” said the Commission’s director of research, Craig Westwood.

Campaign finance is only one of the challenges affecting the security of our elections. Our electoral laws are antiquated and complicated—dozens of laws and hundreds of pieces of secondary legislation, some dating back to the Act of Union, all stacked on top of each other, some contradicting each other. It’s a problem that has only got worse since elections became digital. There are strict laws on election posters and leaflets, but none specifically about advertising online. It seems millions can be poured into Facebook adverts promoting Brexit, decrying austerity or even spreading outright lies and we will have no idea who paid for it.

Spending caps risk being overtaken too. Each parliamentary candidate is allowed to spend between £10,000 and £16,000, depending on the size of the constituency—a formula that can be traced back to the 19th century. Only at the start of the 21st did restrictions on national parties bite: reforms enacted in 2000 today allow a national spend of up to £19.5m (£30,000 for each seat they stand in). But digital advertising has blurred the lines between constituency and nationwide spending. A party can spend £50,000 micro-targeting voters in (say) marginal Nuneaton without the regulator knowing.

Electoral logistics are also feeling the strain. A decade of cuts to local authorities have shrivelled the ranks of skilled election administrators. Councils have also had to squeeze the amount they pay staff who work on election day—for many it will now be a 16-hour day (setting up before polls open at 7am and clearing up after they close at 10pm) on little more than the minimum wage. “We’re finding already that a lot of people just don’t want to do the job anymore,” said Laura Lock, deputy chief executive of the Association of Election Administrators (AEA).

To top it off, the regulator tasked with overseeing elections and ensuring fair play is in crisis. The Electoral Commission is under-resourced and under attack. Like so many independent, expert bodies, it has been accused of bias. After a series of high-profile findings against both Vote Leave and Leave.EU for overspending during the referendum, the Commission has found itself an unwilling participant in the country’s culture wars.

And yet at this moment of crisis in our electoral architecture—when it feels as if it’s all held together with gaffer tape and string—we will be taking part in a snap general election, the first in cold and dark December in nearly 100 years. Will everything hold together? And what happens if it falls apart?

There is no sign outside the Electoral Commission offices but that’s arguably the only part of the commission where transparency does not exist. Its website publishes the findings of every investigation it carries out—from Vote Leave’s overspending in the EU referendum campaign (fine: £61,000) to the Wandsworth Planning Reform Party’s failure to deliver its quarterly donations and transactions report on time (fine: £600).

But for all the commission’s openness, its position has never felt secure. The body was set up in the aftermath of the Bernie Ecclestone affair. The Formula 1 billionaire’s £1m donation to the Labour Party ignited the first major scandal of the Tony Blair era in 1997, following allegations that the money was linked to Formula 1’s exemption from Labour’s ban on tobacco advertising in sport. (The prime minister denied this and famously defended himself by saying people thought of him as a “pretty straight sort of guy.”) A clean-up of the funding of British politics was announced, and the Electoral Commission was the result. Yet from the start, some Conservatives were sceptical about the body’s independence, accusing it of policing their money and of being in bed with the Labour Party.


The commission is intended to be an important guarantor of our democracy, but like so many other things, its place in Britain’s half-written constitution is hazy: it looks with envy to its counterpart in Canada, where principles for running elections are written into the constitution. More prosaically, it is also hamstrung by its limited powers. It is a regulator that hasn’t been given the tools to do its job. The fines it is able to levy are not only low but, according to its research director Westwood, they are not “proportionate to the scale of offences that have been committed.” Parties, he said, know they can break the rules and get away with it. And while the Commission’s role is to enforce the laws governing elections, the actual running of parliamentary contests sits, as it always has, with the local authorities.

This leaves the Commission oddly toothless. At times, all it feels it can do is raise the alarm and hope that the government responds. This would be a worry at any time, but it matters more than ever today. The idea of a neutral referee—a strong, independent body trusted by all parties to ensure fair play—has never been more necessary. But instead, the Commission finds itself at the centre of a now familiar battle.

Everyone once seen as neutral is suspected of bias these days: supreme court judges, the speaker, the BBC’s political editor. Did she vote Remain? Did he support the Tories when he was a student? The correct response to such questions is to ask another: why should it matter? Anyone involved in politics is going to have political views, but these people are also professionals—in the past we would have trusted them to put their views to one side when carrying out their jobs.

Sometime around the EU referendum, however, Britain’s public life lost sight of this distinction. In its wake, the Electoral Commission carried out a series of investigations against campaign groups, uncovering faults on both sides. The big breaches were on the Leave side. Vote Leave was found guilty of “pretty serious offences,” said Louise Edwards, the Electoral Commission’s director of regulation. “There were significant inaccuracies in their spending and they didn’t report the spending properly. And they overspent by about half a million pounds.” But just before the Electoral Commission’s report was published, Vote Leave went on the attack, accusing the commission of bias. The resulting coverage would have appeared to most voters as a “he said, she said,” story, rather than what it was: the independent regulator finding Vote Leave guilty. It was “very frustrating,” said Westwood, with barely disguised anger.

The unofficial Leave.EU campaign—bankrolled by the controversial businessman Arron Banks—was found in breach of similarly serious laws on overspending. Banks, too, hit back, accusing the Commission of being part of “the Remain establishment once again trying to discredit the result.” Inevitably, as this is the way the world works now, Electoral Commission staff have been subjected to abuse—phone calls, emails, messages on social media.

The attacks on the Electoral Commission are “very, very damaging,” said Collins. But his Conservative colleague, the gentlemanly but strident Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the Public Administration select committee, is less concerned—indeed, he thinks the blame lies with the Commission itself. “MPs’ confidence in the Electoral Commission is low—it’s quite serious.” He argues that “there has been a collapse of confidence in the voting system” and that the Commission is to blame. He points to the lack of “known Leavers, but plenty of Remainers” on the Commission’s board. “The Leave campaigns all felt that the Electoral Commission was stacked against them.”

In recent months, a host of high-profile Brexit supporters, including former MP Douglas Carswell and MEP Daniel Hannan, have begun to talk about a “rigged second referendum.” These are not fringe figures—they are regular pro-Brexit pundits on television and radio, and would be likely to feature prominently in any fresh referendum. In a world where we have a US president who prevailed in an election after warning that a less happy result for him would have been potentially illegitimate, perhaps we should not be surprised by Trumpian tactics.

But they bring us to the heart of the problem. Are we still ready to keep faith in the ballot box, even when it yields results we don’t like? And do we still likewise believe there can be a neutral arbiter to see elections are run smoothly? Over at least the past three years, from Michael Gove’s infamous comment about experts to the government’s dismissal of its own no-deal warnings, the concept of the independent professional has been slowly eroded. Arguably, the rot goes back further. The regulators who failed to prevent the financial crisis, and the banks who consistently broke the rules. A parliament that protected its own and attempted to cover up the expenses scandal. The joint intelligence committee that bent to the whims of a prime minister determined to go to war. We have reached a dangerous moment where too many of us believe that everyone has an agenda and no one can be trusted.

[su_pullquote]"Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse"[/su_pullquote]

The Commission’s struggles have come at a time when the rise of unaccountable social media companies and revolutionary technological changes—and the failure of British laws to adapt to those changes—have caused deep concern at Westminster. Technological innovation, warns Collins, has enabled wealthy figures to covertly influence politics in two different ways. The first is by funding campaign organisations that “dominate the conversation on Facebook and other social media channels.” These groups can be anonymous—there is no law which requires them to register and, crucially, no way for anyone seeing the advert to know who paid for it.

While UK electoral laws haven’t caught up, one of the big social media companies has belatedly realised the problem. Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, announced in October that his platform would ban political advertising. Part of his reason, he wrote, was because “internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimisation of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale.” In truth, this was an easy headline for Dorsey to grab—political advertising on Twitter is minute, particularly when compared to Facebook.

During the 2017 election, Twitter made just £56,500 from political parties, while Facebook, a site where many more people spend much more time, raked in £3.2m. In the US the money is much bigger again, and Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg rapidly dismissed the thought of following Dorsey’s lead on commercials with the argument that “I don’t think it’s right for private companies to censor politicians and the news.” Despite the company’s loudly trumpeted tweaks to discourage “fake news,” it remains possible that this election could prove to be Britain’s most Facebook-influenced political contest yet.

Tech can also help major donors hide their identity. Every donation over £500 must be reported. But blockchain technology allows someone to split a large donation to a political party into thousands of micro-payments. A foreign actor, said Collins could “launder money into political campaigns through small donations online. It’s virtually untraceable.”

There is another problem with social media—misinformation, deliberate or otherwise, can travel much faster than before. “Trust in elections is high,” said Rob Curtis, who has spent the last 25 years as a local authority electoral administrator. “But it only needs one bit of information to go out there which is misinterpreted and it becomes a huge issue.” When I asked for an example he sighed and said: “ballot pencils.” Five years ago, a Twitter user suggested that votes were not safe if they were cast in pencil. The hashtag #usepens took off. Not only did it cause problems at polling stations, where baffled election administrators couldn’t understand why so many voters were suddenly adamant that they must use ink, but the spread of the message threatened trust in the entire process. It didn’t matter that it was ludicrous—“do they really think we’re going to rub out 25,000 ballot papers and fill them in again?” asked Curtis—the element of doubt in the process had been introduced.

But that is the point. Once the seeds of doubt are sown, it can fast become as entrenched as Japanese knotweed. Even before this election got going, a row had begun to simmer over voter identification. The government has called for a new law requiring voters to present photo ID at their polling station, claiming that it would address “the potential for electoral fraud in our current system.”

While there have been a small number of scandals over postal voting, at the last election only one person was prosecuted and convicted of impersonation at a polling station. Any votes stolen from non-voters (or from voters who didn’t report finding someone else had cast their ballot) would be additional: there is no way of knowing if this happened once or a thousand times. Yet the amount of planning it would take for anyone to plan to impersonate enough voters to make a difference—and not get caught—makes it hard to believe that this is a real problem.

Instead, it is the introduction of a voter ID law that may cause more problems—a substantial minority of the population do not have passports or driving licenses. When a pilot was run by the Cabinet Office in 10 wards earlier this year, several hundred people were denied a vote because they didn’t have any ID. They made up just half a percentage point of those who voted, but extrapolated across a general election, that would mean 160,000 people turned away.

What’s worrying about the Electoral Commission’s argument for why voter ID might be necessary is that it has nothing to do with whether there is actually a problem with voter fraud. Instead, it’s about perception. When it asks voters in its annual survey about confidence in the voting system, “they always identify the fact that you don’t have to show ID,” said Westwood. “That’s a cause for concern.” By talking about voter ID as a problem, voter ID has become a problem.

That doesn’t necessarily make the situation any easier. Like paper money, votes have currency only because we trust them. And, for all sorts of reasons, that trust is becoming harder to sustain.

The good news is that there is consensus across the political spectrum about the scale of the problem. The cross-party Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee, chaired by Jenkin, has launched an inquiry into electoral law, noting that “most core elements” regulating campaigns “have remained unchanged since the 19th century.” The Law Commission is set to publish its own report on electoral law in January.

The bad news, of course, is that next year is already too late. The term was supposed to run until 2022, which would have given the various institutions—the Electoral Commission, the Law Commission, parliament, government, local authorities, the national crime agency, even Facebook—time to iron out problems. But suddenly the next election is not two or three years away: it is upon us.

The list of problems caused by a snap December poll is huge. For a start, where will we vote? In the run up to Christmas, many of the municipal venues used for voting and counting are booked for fairs and carol services, soup kitchens and work parties. A delay in finding a venue leads to a delay in printing polling cards. Printing companies have limited capacity, especially in the run-up to Christmas, when the post is also slower. This means a delay in polling cards—and postal ballots—being sent out. “It will be a struggle,” said Lock of the AEA, for overseas voters to get their vote back in time. There will be a shortage of staff, too. “It’s not the most attractive job in the world,” she said.

The job of counting the votes may be harder. Political fragmentation will lead to two-way battles turning into three-ways, three-ways into four-ways. When four candidates have more than 20 per cent of the vote, and when those counting have been up all night, mistakes will be made.

With good faith on all sides and trusted referees, serious as these problems are, none of them need threaten our confidence in the overall result. The question, however, is whether British politics any longer enjoys that good faith.

[su_pullquote align="right"]Everyone who works on elections is worried[/su_pullquote]

At least before being tested by the December ballot, trust in elections remains strong in the UK. The Electoral Commission runs an annual survey, which suggests that more than two-thirds of the country believe elections are “well run.” But that number was already starting to slip. “What we’re starting to see,” said Westwood, “are some of the risks coming home to roost.”

Everyone who works on elections is worried. The regulators, the administrators, the politicians who oversee them, the lawyers trying to revise the laws. The alarm has been sounded and yet, here we are, heading into another election—one where security cannot be guaranteed, where the laws may not be followed, where anyone can spend money, where anyone can place adverts, and all of that happening at a time when trust in experts and institutions is at an all-time low and fear of bias at an all-time high. Trust in democracy is one of the last pillars remaining. Will it still be standing once we’re done?

This article was amended on Friday 15th November. The voter ID pilot scheme was carried out by the Cabinet Office, not the Electoral Commission as originally stated