The hope is that 12th December remains a legitimate democratic exercise but we cannot be sure of thatby Alan Renwick / November 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Elections must be fought within the confines of robust rules—otherwise, the playing field can be skewed by the unscrupulous. Yet the rules currently in place for elections in the UK are grossly out of date. That an early election has been called without addressing the worst of the problems is damaging to our democracy.
The most obvious weaknesses relate to the regulation of digital campaigning. The last big update of the rules took place in 2000, long before social media had any significance. Recent years have seen astonishingly rapid change in how campaigns are conducted: in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, according to Electoral Commission figures, campaigners spent less than 2 per cent of their advertising budgets online; by the 2017 general election, just three years later, that was 43 per cent.
The rules have not caught up. Printed election leaflets must show who produced them, but there is no equivalent requirement for digital materials. Campaign messages can be “microtargeted” at very specific groups, and no one else has a right to see what is being said. Procedures for reporting campaign spending mean that information comes out only months after the fact (the Electoral Commission published the data on the June 2017 election only in March 2018). Even then, much detail is missing.
The tech companies have begun to fill this legal void: Facebook, for example, has a searchable “ad library,” while Twitter has just announced that it will ban paid political advertising on its site entirely. But such measures are often inadequate: notably, Facebook releases no information on which constituencies or precise demographics have been targeted. Besides, the rules should be decided democratically, not by internet bosses in Silicon Valley.
Other weaknesses matter too. There are insufficient protections against foreign interference—and it is worrying that the independent MP and chair of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, Dominic Grieve, is alleging that the government is delaying publication of a report on alleged Russian meddling. The postal voting system, meanwhile, is vulnerable to delays, with overseas voters particularly at risk of disfranchisement because their ballot papers have not arrived on time. And badly needed protections for candidates and campaigners against harassment and abuse have not been put in place.
The urgency of these and other…