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 positionby Steve Bloomfield / November 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
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.