Posts in News

“Sleaze” is an Understatement: This Government is Rigging the System

05/11/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on ““Sleaze” is an Understatement: This Government is Rigging the System”

The Government has yet again become entangled in an embarrassing corruption scandal, culminating in another U-turn from the PM on Thursday.

After an extensive report found (now former) MP Owen Paterson guilty of “egregious” violations of lobbying rules, the PM and many others in his party voted to do away with established ethics rules and block his 30-day suspension in order to cover for him.

When opposition leaders boycotted the new Conservative-led Committee to create new ethics rules and public outrage came to a head, the plan disintegrated. The PM has since called for a new vote to effectively undo the entire ordeal, scheduled for next week. Owen Paterson has resigned, yet still proclaims his innocence.

This is by no means the first public corruption scandal (or U-turn) of this calibre under this administration. The PM’s eye-watering disregard for any semblance of ethical governance has held much of civil society and the public in nearly perpetual shock over the last couple of years.

This administration’s brash and unapologetic rejection of established norms, as well as its knee-jerk inclination to protect its own, signals to the public that fairness and decency are not a part of its agenda. Unfortunately, this current of corruption isn’t just limited to its managing of scandals, but infests all of its political operations.

Unfairness is a cornerstone of this Government’s political strategy; it’s aiming to silence opposition by rigging the system in its favour. This is abundantly clear from the legislation we’ve seen put forward since 2019. 

The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, currently in Committee Stage in the House of Lords, would impede citizen’s rights to protest peacefully and grant authoritarian stop and search powers which will disproportionately affect people of colour.

The Judicial Review and Courts Bill, making its way through the Commons, would limit access to justice for many by removing their right to hold lawmakers accountable.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, also in the Commons, would make arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence, with the Government aiming to “abdicate its commitments to international law”.

The common thread in both the PM’s conduct and the legislation put forward by ministers is that this Government refuses to be held accountable and will do everything it can to rig the system in its favour. Ethical principles have been tossed aside, viewed as barriers to power consolidation.

This brings us to the Elections Bill.

While the Government’s narrative around this bill has been one of “common sense” paired with a vague concern for non-existent voter fraud (perfectly mirroring one of Donald Trump’s famous campaign strategies), such a motive flies in the face of everything we’ve seen this Government willing to do to consolidate power. They’ve publicly demonstrated disdain for human rights, apathy towards regular Britons, and a prioritisation of their own political power above all else.

What have they done to give us any reason to believe those intentions, even for a second? 

That narrative does not hold an ounce of water when you look at what’s actually in this bill.

They’d have us believe it’s simply a coincidence that the type of IDs accepted under the new voter identification scheme the bill introduces happen to belong to strong Conservative demographics.

They want you to think there’s an actual reason to limit postal and proxy voting, outside of sheer Trumpian anti-democratic power consolidation.

They hope you’ll just trust them on the Bill’s politicisation of the Electoral Commission, forcing the most important democratic institution in this country under their partisan control.

Do not trust their narrative when the real story has been in plain sight for years. Don’t listen when they tell you to ignore the evidence of your own eyes and ears. 

With all the talk of “sleaze,” let’s recognise that there is a deeper and far more sinister underlying intent, evident in both the shameful and unending string of political scandals and the actual legislative agenda of this Government.

The intent is to rig the system in its favour, step on opposition, and consolidate as much power as possible. 

This goes against everything modern Britain stands for and undermines the hard-earned achievements of past generations before us in establishing a democratic and free society.

Let’s pause and re-think whether this is truly what we want for our country. 

The Metaverse: A New Chapter in Undermining Democracy

29/10/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “The Metaverse: A New Chapter in Undermining Democracy”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he will be re-branding the company into “Meta,” likely in a futile effort to wash away the incredible damage the company has done to the social fabric of nations around the world, the integrity of political discourse globally, and the mental well-being of individuals everywhere.

There’s more to it than that. Zuckerberg, in a bizarre video, also proclaimed the creation of what he calls “the Metaverse”.

Our founder and director Kyle Taylor wrote on Friday that despite the “damning revelations about the social media platform in the last week”, “Mark Zuckerberg’s reaction has been to go full Orwellian and pretend as if none of it happened.”

Read Kyle’s full Byline Times piece for a play-by-play breakdown of Facebook’s scandals and Zuckerberg’s absurd hubris. Here is what he had to say about the Metaverse:

“On Thursday, [Mark Zuckerberg] released a video announcement that the company would be renamed Meta, declaring that it has a “new North Star” of building the metaverse – a virtual reality world in which Facebook is likely not destabilising governments, facilitating genocides and undermining global health efforts. A virtual reality in which Facebook isn’t terrible. Too late Mark, game over.”

Essentially the Metaverse is still Facebook, but in a virtual reality setting – complete with avatars, virtual homes, and more. Despite its potential surface-level appeal, experts are already raising concerns that this becoming a reality might actually increase the dangers Facebook poses to democracy: more detachment from real life, and more potential to create thought bubbles that spread hate and misinformation.

Areeq Chowdhury, Senior Policy Advisor for the Royal Society, listed some of these concerns in a twitter thread this morning:

In the Metaverse, anonymous avatars will show up to virtual rallies and be digitally violent towards politicians.”

“In the Metaverse, influencers and overt racists will select dark skin tones for their avatars.”

“In the Metaverse, extremists will livestream acts of violence on big screens in Metacinemas.”

In all likelihood, we can’t even begin to imagine what kind of changes the Metaverse will bring to the platform’s already incredibly problematic business model and operational standards.

All of this of course comes at an incredibly pertinent moment for Facebook’s reputation.

Whistleblower Frances Haugen gave testimony to UK Parliament on Monday, echoing what she said to US Parliament several weeks before and what Sophie Zhang mentioned last week:

Facebook is a slave to “meaningful social interactions”, lingo for shares, likes and comments. It doesn’t matter what content is being shared, and we know for a fact that inflammatory content gets more attention.

She also urged UK lawmakers to include ads in the scope of the upcoming Online Safety Bill, arguing that it would be a “grave danger to society and democracies around the world to omit societal harm”.

As we work to reform the bill into something that could actually stand a chance at tackling these mounting digital perils, we are grateful for her testimony and that of Sophie Zhang.

Ignore the flash and glamour of the Metaverse – somehow, Zuckerberg thinks he can absolve himself and his company by throwing some VR tech into the mix and putting on an ostentatious, tone-deaf presentation. At its worse, the metaverse represents a whole new unfortunate chapter in the story of social media’s undermining of civilised discourse and informed democratic participation.

Don’t forget what Facebook is, or who Zuckerberg is. Effective legislation, hopefully in the form of the Online Safety Bill, is the key to curtailing the damage this company has done and is continuing to do. Join the fight to create a fairer and less toxic digital space, one that values human well-being over profits.

Facebook Whistleblower Sophie Zhang Advises MPs on Digital Regulation

20/10/2021 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Facebook Whistleblower Sophie Zhang Advises MPs on Digital Regulation”

Yesterday afternoon, former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang testified to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill (you can watch the full testimony here).

This comes after she spoke out in April against her former employer.

Zhang’s allegations strongly reinforced what Frances Haugen said before a U.S. Senate subcommittee last week:

Facebook is knowingly allowing the propagation of large-scale disinformation campaigns because, to put it simply, executives can’t stomach even the smallest hit to their bottom line. 

Here is an overview of the situation to date with Facebook. Their role in choosing profits over human safety, and propagating targeted hateful, misleading and abusive content has undermined democracy and led to real events with real consequences – the insurrection on January 6th, for example.

Zhang, whose former role involved dealing with bots and fake accounts, gave Members of Parliament a good idea of how severe the problems are.

She claimed to have direct experience with bringing issues to the attention of executives and being shot down. When she brought concerns about fake Facebook accounts manipulating elections in Honduras, she claims the company failed to “agree on the importance” of the dilemma.

“The people charged with making important decisions about what the rules are and how the rules are getting enforced are the same as those charged with keeping good relationships with local politicians and governmental members”, she explained.

She also gave an illuminating perspective on how the Draft Online Safety Bill should contend with giant tech platforms like Facebook.

Zhang testified that allowing social media companies to conduct their own internal risk assessments would likely lead to them “pretend[ing] that the problem doesn’t exist”, and thus not reporting to Ofcom.

Instead of the self-reporting model, Zhang advocated for Ofcom and external regulators and digital experts to test and assess the platforms’ efficacy in keeping users safe from misinformation and abuse.

Facebook is making little to no progress towards a consistent policy on dealing with the safety of its users.

Thanks to whistleblowers like Haugen and Zhang, the public is finally beginning to get the full picture. In what many are calling Facebook’s “Big Tobacco Moment“, citizens and government officials across the political spectrum are beginning to understand the importance of comprehensive reform to the digital space.

It’s critical that the Online Safety Bill – as well as other similar attempts at digital regulation globally – gets it right. We can’t allow platforms like Facebook to pull at the social fabric of nations around the world for much longer – the consequences will only get more severe.

We Told Downing Street: No to Voter ID

08/09/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “We Told Downing Street: No to Voter ID”

On Tuesday, our director Kyle Taylor went to 10 Downing Street along with representatives from the Electoral Reform Society, My Life My Say, Hands Off Our Vote and 38 Degrees to deliver 290,000+ signed petitions telling the Government to scrap dangerous plans for voter ID.

We also delivered a letter, signed by a broad coalition of civil society organisations and academics, reminding government that more than 2 million people lack photo ID and that the plans (by Government’s own figures) could cost up to £20 million per general election.

The mobilisation efforts around voter ID have been strong across civil society and the public. All of the evidence simply points to the fact that voter id will keep people away from the polls, cost millions, and solve absolutely nothing.

A data driven, peer reviewed study of voter ID pilots by Professor of Political Science & Public Policy Toby S. James (University of East Anglia) and Senior Lecturer Alistair Clark (Newcastle University) found that voter identification measures “had little effect on the security of the electoral process” and that they actually “led to some voters not casting their ballot, either for reasons of convenience and availability of suitable forms of ID, or reasons of principle and protest.”

Voter ID, along with the limitations on postal voting that are also provisioned in the Elections Bill, are US Republican-style policies designed to limit voting and make minority rule a reality. The US recently had a minority-elected President nominate lifetime Supreme Court appointments that were confirmed by a minority-elected Senate. Voter suppression measures in Texas allowed for fringe beliefs to become state law at the behest of minority-elected state legislators. The dangers of voter suppression are palpable and we do not want to see the UK move in this dangerous direction. This is a truly critical moment for the future of UK democracy.

Supporters of voter ID often bring up Northern Ireland and EU countries with mandatory voter ID, but this is not an apt comparison. The implementation of ID in Northern Ireland had a significant negative effect on voter turnout, as many are predicting will be the case here. Additionally, EU countries already have mandatory state ID card schemes which include free provision of ID for all citizens. The UK’s scheme wants to create a registration based process (ie not automatic) for “electoral identity documents” administered independently by over 300 councils (in England alone), each with their own funding limitations. We still don’t know how long it will take to arrive, or how difficult it will be to acquire. If you need to travel to a distant council office to get it, or take time off work, or are a Council tax payer, that’s not ‘free’ ID. Many will be unable to complete the registration process in the allotted time or travel to pick up the document (assuming the councils are even able to fund these plans). 

As the Elections Bill has just passed its second reading and is moving to Committee Stage on the 15th, we are urging the Government to pause and re-think this bill. The cost figures come from the largely buried impact assessment of the bill, which estimates that the bill’s provisions could cost as much as £180 million over the next 10 years. We urge the public and the Government to consider what we are actually getting for that price.

We are not alone. We, along with the 290,000+ petition signers and a 61 org strong democracy defense coalition, will not see voters disenfranchised in this country or minority rule made a reality.

Stand with us and tell the government: No to Voter ID.

What Would a Robust Elections Bill Look Like?

27/08/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “What Would a Robust Elections Bill Look Like?”

The UK’s electoral system is broken in multiple ways. Fair Vote UK and our ally organisations are fighting a multi-front policy battle to ensure that voting is fair, easy and safe. The Electoral Integrity bill, an extensive policy package due for its second reading when Parliament returns in early September, represents a massive opportunity for those of us that want to bolster our electoral system against nefarious actors and authoritarian threats. While the bill gets a lot wrong in certain areas, it inches towards sensible reform in others. The UK hasn’t had meaningful electoral reform in years, and this bill needs to correctly interpret the threats posed to democracy in the age of shadow campaigns, dodgy data and encroaching authoritarianism. Instead of dwelling on what this bill is (as we’ve been doing for months now), let’s discuss what it should be. 

What would a robust elections bill actually look like? 

First, let’s get rid of the worst parts of the bill – those that add no value and in some cases actually pose serious risks to the health of our democracy.

Provisions for mandatory voter identification would need to be scrapped. Voter ID is a controversial policy that threatens to disenfranchise millions of voters and cost millions of pounds. For more information on why voter ID needs to go, please read our take on voter id or Electoral Reform Society‘s fantastic in-depth analysis of the policy.

Similarly, new requirements for postal and proxy voting also need to be tossed out. New requirements would mandate that postal voters re-apply every 3 years (before every general election), and there is no clarification on what problems these measures are even attempting to solve. The reasoning here harks back to Donald Trump’s completely unsubstantiated allegations about connections between postal voting and voter fraud. Much like voter id requirements, this is straight out of the Republican voter suppression playbook. This section of the bill also limits proxy voting and bans political campaigners from handling postal votes, citing voter fraud and ‘postal vote harvesting’. There is simply no evidence that these are real issues.

The bill also, against the recommendations of the CSPL’s report on regulating election finance, encroaches on and politicises the Electoral Commission by removing its prosecutorial powers and making it beholden to the (Conservative-dominated) Speaker’s Committee. The Commission, a vitally important democratic institution, can only function properly when its independence is preserved. No institution has more embedded knowledge of electoral law than the Electoral Commission.

A robust Elections Bill would increase the Electoral Commissions funding, maintain its prosecution powers, and grant it unlimited fining capabilities for election offenses. To go even further, oversight of local candidate financial reports could be shifted to the Commission, and regional offices could be set up around the country that operate outside of regulated election periods.

Those are the worst parts. Next, there are the aspects of the bill that move in the right direction, but don’t quite go far enough to constitute meaningful reform.

The political finance section of the bill, for example, contains some decent provisions:

  • Third-party campaigner registration: This measure will introduce a new ‘lower’ tier of registration with the Electoral Commission for third parties spending above £10,000 across the constituent parts of the UK but less than the current per-country registration thresholds. Groups in this ‘lower tier’ would be subject to basic transparency requirements and would need to be UK-based or otherwise eligible to register.
  • Restriction of all third-party campaigning to UK-based entities and eligible overseas electors: This will restrict third-party campaigning during a regulated period to only those groups eligible to register with the Electoral Commission, even those spending below the registration threshold.
  • Ban on registering as both a political party and a third-party campaigner.
  • Restrictions on coordinated spending between parties and third parties.
  • Asset and liabilities declaration for the registration of new political parties.

This is a good start, but a robust bill would have a much lower spending threshold to require registration with the Commission, perhaps £1000 instead of £10,000. Third parties can do a lot of damage without spending more than £10,000.

Here are some other additions that would make these political finance reforms more meaningful: 

  • Require exit audits for parties and third parties at the end of each regulated election period.
  • Include market-based costs of data-sets (those used to target political advertisements) in spending regulation sums.
  • All non-cash donations should be subject to permissibility checks. Cash donations over £20 should be subject. This would be supported by a national, networked electoral roll to help smaller parties manage the added workload this change would necessitate. It is impossible to be certain that one nefarious actor is not making repeated gifts “just under the limit” using multiple aliases, or “proxy donors”, as Oxford Professor Jacob Rowbottom argued in written evidence for the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency’s 2020 report Defending Democracy in the Digital Age
  • Corporate donations should be required to come from profits declared in the UK. We don’t want shell corporations channeling foreign money into our elections (read more about this here).
  • Standardise all financial reporting.
  • Streamline national vs local spending with a per-seat cap on total spending.  This is necessary to unblur the line between local and national party spending as exacerbated by digital campaigning tactics. Targeted online advertising is a prime example of a campaign tactic that could be considered national or local. More broadly, this provision helps to reduce the existence of “democracy deserts” by limiting an inundation of money to very few traditionally competitive seats, broadening reach and engagement in the democratic process. 

Note: the CSPL’s report on regulating election finance contains a number of other recommendations that would be much stronger than what is currently in the Electoral Integrity Bill. Read our full analysis of that report here

Another area that could be strengthened is digital imprints. While we have long advocated for the introduction of a digital imprints regime, the one laid out in the bill leaves concerning loopholes. A robust bill would tighten the wording to ensure that embedding the imprint on the actual material (not on the account page or somewhere else) is compulsory. We also want to see imprints that mention why the viewer was targeted.

The Electoral Integrity bill has a few other sections, which we either support or don’t feel are generally harmful enough to oppose. These include:

  • Increasing the accessibility of polls to those with disabilities, which we support unequivocally.
  • Clarification of undue influence. This seeks to crack down on intimidation/threats/manipulation of voters to affect the outcome of their vote.
  • Scrapping the 15 year limit on overseas electors’ right to vote in UK. This is good, but we should note that this pro-democratic logic should be applied to other sections of the bill such as Voter ID and postal voting. 
  • EU Voting and candidacy rights.

We’ve established now that a robust Elections Bill would do away with voter ID and postal voting restrictions, strengthen and maintain the independence of the Electoral Commission, contain more impactful campaign finance reforms, and establish a fleshed-out digital imprints regime. However, the bill could go even further than that.

A truly impactful bill would include more measures to ensure transparency, enforce accountability, and encourage trust in UK democracy with an evidence-based approach to countering real threats (as opposed to non-existent ones like ‘postal vote harvesting’).

Here are some ways the bill could go above and beyond: 

  • Introduce automatic voter registration (AVR). A report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust defines AVR as the direct enrollment of citizens onto the electoral register by public officials, without the need for pro-active action by citizens”. There are a number of options for implementation. For more information, read the Electoral Reform Society’s overview here.
  • Strengthen pandemic-related election safeguarding measures. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and global society runs the risk of fighting more pandemics in the near future, this bill should protect the integrity of our elections in the post-pandemic social landscape. For more information on this, read our report Democracy in the Age of Pandemic.
  • Create an office for Election Integrity. An Office for Election Integrity—a COBRA for elections—should be convened quarterly outside election time and twice-weekly during an election period. It would promote efficiency in interagency cooperation around these issues, so that the ICO, Electoral Commission, Ofcom (in its capacity as Online Harms regulator) and any other relevant regulatory bodies are pooling their resources, knowledge and expertise. 
  • Digital Advert Libraries. The CSPL’s election finance report recommended that “the government should legislate to require social media platforms that permit election adverts in the UK to create advert libraries that include specified information.” These libraries would be required to contain information including: precise figures for amounts spent, rather than ranges, who paid for the advert (for targeted adverts), information about the intended target audience of the advert and the types of people who actually saw the advert. They would be required to be submitted to the Electoral Commission. 
  • Ban foreign entities from buying campaign advertising in the UK. As recommended by the CSPL, this would ease concerns about electoral manipulation and help restore trust in democracy.

We can’t hope to list them all. There are many organisations working tirelessly to come up with meaningful reforms to our electoral system that would help it stand against 21st century challenges. The problems of our time can be tackled in different ways, but certainly not with further restricting who can vote and wasting taxpayer money on non-solutions like voter identification.

Realistically (and unfortunately), we aren’t going to see the perfect, idealised version of the bill we’ve just laid out. We can, however, make it miles better than it stands currently. With the help of our partner organisations we are pushing hard to reform the bill in the most important places. We’re working tirelessly on specific amendments to the bill that will push it in the right direction. Millions of peoples’ ability to vote is on the line.

The purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate how unfortunate it is that we have to fight a piece of legislation entitled the ‘Electoral Integrity Bill’. Integrity in our electoral system is of critical importance. It could be a groundbreaking, revolutionary reform package that ushers in a golden age of UK democracy. Unfortunately, it falls far, far short of that mark.

Let’s make this into a bill that actually does what it says on the tin. 

Voter ID Will Not Bolster Electoral Integrity

20/08/2021 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Voter ID Will Not Bolster Electoral Integrity”

As the debate on mandatory voter identification continues in the UK, the realities of such requirements are plainly visible across the Atlantic.

The US has been having this same debate since the Jim Crow era.  Seven Republican-dominated US states now have voter ID laws as strict as what the UK Government is proposing. These laws are implemented by state governments that also gerrymander, purge voter roles, and restrict voter registration. A lot of this legislation came directly in the wake of Democratic victories at the state level in 2020. It’s clear what their goal is.

One such bill in Georgia, SB241, included measures to end voting by mail without providing a reason alongside stringent voter id requirements. This brings to mind the UK Government’s proposals in the Electoral Integrity Bill to limit postal voting by requiring voters to re-apply every 3 years (before every general election). More similar still, Republican representatives pointed to voter fraud risk when challenged on the legislation’s intentions. The same boogeyman was used for the same purpose: disenfranchising the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Nevertheless, the UK Government continues to back plans for voter ID requirements, despite the fact that these requirements will alienate voters and cost taxpayers millions of pounds. In response to a petition to require ID verification for social media usage, this same Government even directly stated that “3.5 million people do not have a valid photo ID”.

Renfrewshire SNP Councillors wrote in June to the Prime Minister, accusing the UK Government of “attacking the poor”. They’re correct to think so. The Government’s own commissioned research has demonstrated that vulnerable groups were less likely to hold any form of photo ID.

Chloe Smith MP responded that the Government would continue with its plans. Echoing US Republicans, she stated that voter fraud is “a crime we cannot allow room for.” This response, dubbed a “whitewash” by the SNP Councillors, neglects to address any of the tangible concerns that many people in the UK have regarding voter id requirements. Our friends at the Electoral Reform Society hope to use the incident as a case study.

Voter fraud itself is practically non-existent, mentioned solely as a justification to allow for draconian controls on who can vote and who can not. Funnily enough, it doesn’t seem to come up much in other contexts. According to the Electoral Commission, only 4 convictions for voter fraud occurred in the 2019 general election (this tiny number is also higher than in many previous elections).

Additionally, the Voter ID section of the bill leaves a startling amount undecided. How will Councils orchestrate the supposed ‘free election identification document’ for everyone? how will it be paid for? how is this actually going to work? The bill makes provisions for ministers to make many of these decisions down the line, leaving the scale of possibilities frighteningly wide.

The worst part of all of this is that the UK electoral system is in dire need of reform. We need to better regulate third parties, expand voting access, and modernise our democracy to be fit for the digital age. We don’t need to be ripping out pages of the US Republican playbook.

Some parts of Chloe Smith’s Elections Bill even take small steps in the directions we need to be moving in, such as campaign finance and digital imprints. All of that progress is eradicated when you include policies like voter ID, part of a US policy package that American voting rights activist Stacey Abrams calls “a redux Jim Crowe in a Suit”.

Those of us that care about the integrity of the UK’s electoral system have many ideas on how to fix it, but first we need to take blatant voter suppression policies off the table.

New CSPL Report on Regulating Election Finance

08/07/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “New CSPL Report on Regulating Election Finance”

On Wednesday the 7th of July, the Committee on Standards in Public Life released their 167 page report on regulating election finance, containing 47 recommendations to streamline electoral regulations and protect elections from foreign interference and dark money.

Built on months of testimony from civil society, academia, government and regular people, the immense report makes strong points about the flaws present in our electoral system. Not only does Fair Vote UK support many of the 47 recommendations laid out in this report, we strongly agree with the underlying message that our regulatory regime is in desperate need of an upgrade.

Read our full analysis on the report here.

Analysis: July 5th Elections Bill

06/07/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Analysis: July 5th Elections Bill”

The Elections Bill covers a lot of territory and deserves adequate time in Parliament for its vast implications to be properly scrutinised. While there are some small positive steps in certain areas such as election finance, overseas electors and digital imprints, these are unfortunately nullified by the bill’s regressive stipulations, including voter ID and the curbing of the Electoral Commission’s independence and prosecutorial capabilities. 

Where positive, the bill often doesn’t go far enough (as in the case of election finance) or leaves significant legal loopholes (digital imprints). 

Fair Vote UK welcomes the effort to protect democracy, but our years of experience and research indicate that this bill will not accomplish that task to anywhere near the degree that democracy requires in the digital age.

Voter Identification: 

Schedule 1 of the bill addresses Voter Identification. Amending RPA 1983, it mandates that a valid form of photo identification must be produced at polling stations. Acceptable IDs include passports, driving licenses, concessionary travel passes, and photocard parking permits. Notably, student ID cards, student travel cards, and other forms of identification likely to be held by younger people are omitted from the list of valid IDs given in the bill. 

The bill does stipulate that voters can apply for free electoral identification cards if they lack any valid form of identification (as well as an anonymous elector’s ID with an electoral number in lieu of one’s name). Applications for ID may be discarded if certain deadlines are not met or certain information is not provided, potentially leaving voters with no recourse to vote if they are not fully checked in to the process. People with full-time jobs, young children, serious illness or other time-consuming life circumstances who lack valid ID may not have time to deal with this new process. 

Generally, even with free ID cards available, this legislation serves only to wedge a new and unnecessary layer of bureaucracy between would-be voters (especially members of marginalised groups) and their democratic right to a vote for no evidence-based  purpose whatsoever. It will cost millions of pounds to issue these identification cards nation-wide, and an estimated £17.9 million each election to administer.

There is no doubt that this will result in more eligible voters being turned away from polling stations. Voter fraud is not a serious problem and this treatment is far worse than the alleged disease. 

Fair Vote UK believes voter ID is a waste of time, effort, and taxpayer funds. Several prominent Conservative MPs agree, including David Davis MP, who said that voter ID “will potentially disenfranchise thousands of people” and that it is an “illogical and illiberal solution to a non-existent problem.” 

Postal and Proxy Voting Measures: 

Schedules 2 and 3 address changes to postal and proxy voting. 

Those who vote by post in the long-term will be required to re-apply every 3 years to do so. This is completely unnecessary and, like Voter ID, only serves to ultimately limit the number of people casting votes in any given election. 

To combat what Chloe Smith MP calls “postal vote harvesting”, the bill will also ban campaigners from handling postal votes. No evidence is provided to suggest this is actually a problem. 

The number of people on behalf of whom a person can vote by proxy is limited to four. Of those four, no more than two can be non-service or overseas voters. We disagree with this as it could potentially affect certain families and co-habitants that depend on proxy voting to cast all of their votes. 

Clarification of Undue Influence: 

Schedule 4 addresses deception and intimidation of electors at polling stations or elsewhere in order to affect the outcome of their vote. 

Notably, calling into question the validity of the electoral process or election administration can also amount to undue influence. This is a welcome change though again, no evidence is provided to suggest this is a serious problem. 

Accessibility of Polls: 

This section encourages election officials to make polling stations more accessible for citizens with disabilities and removes restrictions on who can act as a companion to disabled voters. This is absolutely welcome. 

Overseas Electors:

Schedule 6 scraps the 15 year time limit on overseas electors’ right to vote in Parliamentary elections. Other improvements make it easier for overseas voters to stay registered and verify their identity and connection to a UK residence. 

While an expansion of suffrage is welcome, the bill contradicts itself in that overseas voters are being re-enfranchised while the voting rights of electors living in the country itself are being limited by voter ID and postal and proxy voting requirements. 

EU Voting / Candidacy Rights: 

Schedule 7 establishes circumstances in which EU citizens in the UK can vote in non-devolved local elections. Citizens of EU nations that have voting rights agreements with the UK (Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, and Poland) and EU citizens that have maintained residence in the UK prior to 31 December 2020 can still vote in those elections. We again welcome expanding suffrage and believe this aspect of the bill could go even further.

The Electoral Commission:

The bill introduces the ‘Strategy & Policy Statement’, which will be “developed through a statutory consultation with key stakeholders” and, crucially, approved by Parliament. The Statement will set the priorities and principles that the Commission is expected to operate within. 

The bill also increases the remit of the Speaker’s Committee (which the Commission currently reports to), making the Commission more accountable to the Committee for its “performance and delivery of general objectives”. With Westminster’s governing party holding a majority on the Committee, this would further bring the Commission under the Government’s control.

Making the Electoral Commission beholden to the Government of the day will greatly diminish its operational independence, making it a weaker and less impartial institution. This will likely erode public trust and give the party of government undue influence over the mechanisms of an Election in which they – by definition – have an interest. 

The Commission possesses a uniquely robust understanding of Electoral Law and should not be beholden to those without its same focus and expertise. This represents a serious conflict of interest, one with potentially severe consequences for free and fair elections in our democracy. 

The Electoral Commission’s capacity to prosecute will also be clearly ruled out, under the supposition that it “wastes public money” and that responsibility should remain firmly within the remit of the police and Crown Prosecution Service. This constitutes the removal of a potentially important accountability enforcement mechanism for the Commission. An already stretched CPS does not need this burden. The Commission, specialists in the area, should be given the resources and power to properly prosecute infringements of electoral law. How, exactly, is this meant to increase the public’s trust in elections?

Beyond that, another bill is in its second reading in the House of Commons that seeks to abolish the Electoral Commission entirely. While the bill looks likely to be unsuccessful, it demonstrates a consistent commitment from sections of Parliament against an independent, non-partisan Electoral Commission.

Political Finance: 

The bill introduces five new measures that attempt to curb foreign spending in UK elections and increase fairness and transparency. The five new measures are as follows: 

– Third Party Campaigner Registration

  • Third parties spending over £10,000 will need to register with the Electoral Commission and adhere to existing transparency requirements as well as indicate that they are UK-based. 

– Restriction of Third Party Campaigning

  • Only third parties that are registered with the Commission will be able to campaign during regulated election periods, whether or not they spent above the £10,000 threshold. 

– Ban on Simultaneously Registering as a Political Party and Third Party

  • It will no longer be permitted to register as both a political party and a third party. This will prevent entities from using both spending limits. 

Restrictions on Coordinated Spending Between Political Parties and Third Parties

  • Third parties and political parties that campaign jointly will be required to account for their combined costs. 

– Requirement for New Political Parties to Declare Assets and Liabilities

  • Political parties will be required to declare assets and liabilities in order to register with the Electoral Commission.

Fair Vote UK suggested actions along similar lines in our 2020 report Defending Democracy in the Digital Age. The main concern is that these actions may not be robust enough to fully address the scale of the problem at hand in terms of foreign spending and dark money political donations. 

The £10,000 spending threshold should be lower – set to 1p – and the Electoral Commission should be given the necessary capacity to fine and even prosecute infractions against election finance protocol. Whether you’re spending £1 or £100,000, any entity attempting to influence an election should be registered with the Electoral Commission.

We would like to see this section of the bill taken much further.

Our recommendations on how to do that, drawn largely from our extensive consultation, are to: 

  • Regulate all donations by reducing permissibility check requirements from £500 to 1p for all non-cash donations.
  • Increase transparency and regulation of local candidate financial reports by shifting oversight to the Electoral Commission.
  • Streamline national versus local spending limits with a per-seat cap on total spending.
  • Modernise spending regulations by instituting per-annum spending limits. 
  • Standardise financial reporting.
  • Require corporate donations to come ONLY from profits reported in the UK.
  • Third Party Political Organisations and political parties should complete an “Exit” audit after an election period before they disband.
  • Include valuations of data set costs in spending regulations

Intimidation Sanctions: 

The bill stipulates that anyone convicted of abusing a candidate, campaigner or elected official will no longer be eligible to run as a candidate themselves for five years. 

This would not function as a deterrent, as the vast majority of those who would abuse candidates/campaigners/elected officials likely have no interest in running for office.

Digital Imprints:

The new long-awaited digital imprints regime will require political campaigners to show who they are and who they are promoting material for. This applies only to all paid-for digital material. 

Elected representatives and political parties will also require an imprint if the material is digital election material, referendum material, or recall petition material. 

The paid-for vs. unpaid distinction risks the creation of certain loopholes that could nullify the effectiveness of requiring digital imprints in the first place. It is also crucial that the imprint includes why the audience is being targeted. 

Transparency in modern political campaigning should mean political advertisers are open to members of the public about the (often very specific) reasons they are being targeted with a message.

There is also no specification that the imprint needs to be visible on the material, creating yet another concerning loophole especially as the material is shared and re-shared. 

Finally, the legislation does not put a legal duty on platforms to ensure campaigners put an imprint on electronic material before it is uploaded. This is a fundamental flaw in the regime as social media companies have vast resources and it would make more sense – even purely from a practical point of view – to require the implementation of digital imprints at the upload stage rather than expecting the Electoral Commission and police to monitor compliance after the fact.  

Our Final Take:

While there are some welcome new provisions in this bill, it is clear that the driving force behind it is not electoral integrity but instead power consolidation. Making it easier to vote while living abroad but harder to vote while living in the country is blatantly contradictory and serves no purpose but to disenfranchise the most vulnerable and most marginalised in society. Explicitly eliminating the investigative and prosecutorial power of the Electoral Commission is transparently reducing the enforcement power of election law and a welcome invitation to break the law. Why weaken the independence and deterrence power of the Electoral Commission if you’re attempting to increase confidence in elections and democracy? It doesn’t make sense.

The Electoral Integrity Bill is a huge opportunity to modernise election law with several missed goals. For example, Election Day could have been moved to a weekend or been made a bank holiday to ensure people can actually get to the polls. Instead, their postal vote now expires after three years and there are even more hoops to jump through to vote on the day, including expensive Voter ID provisions that are attempting to solve a problem that evidence suggests does not exist. 

If recent efforts to actively disenfranchise voters in the USA are any indication, this bill’s greatest outcome will be to reduce democratic participation and in turn, faith in the outcome of elections. We look forward to robustly amending the bill to turn it into an actual Electoral Integrity Bill that seeks to broaden participation, deter interference and law-breaking and strengthen faith in our most cherished institution – democracy. 

Statements on Electoral Integrity Bill Reveal Concerning Contradictions

25/06/2021 Posted by News 0 thoughts on “Statements on Electoral Integrity Bill Reveal Concerning Contradictions”

On June 15th 2021, Chloe Smith MP gave a speech hosted by right wing think tank Policy Exchange on the Government’s plans to safeguard democracy from 21st century dangers. She evoked the second American president, John Adams, and cited Freedom House’s Freedom of the World Index to demonstrate the global “democratic recession” that the world is currently experiencing. 

To combat this recession, she describes the multiple pending pieces of legislation, including both the Electoral Integrity Bill and the Online Safety Bill, as part of a larger initiative to “keep the UK’s democracy modern, secure, transparent, and fair.”

Smith followed this speech with two written statements to Parliament, published on the 15th and 17th of June 2021. Both revealed new information about the Government’s forthcoming Electoral Integrity Bill.

 

Changes to the Electoral Commission: 

Smith’s written statement to Parliament on the 17th of June revealed plans to significantly alter the functioning of the Electoral Commission. In order to address perceived issues with the Commission’s accountability, the Elections Bill will include measures to introduce a ‘Strategy & Policy Statement’ to guide the Commission’s core functioning.

The ‘Strategy & Policy Statement’ will be “developed through a statutory consultation with key stakeholders” and, crucially, approved by Parliament. The Statement will set the priorities and principles that the Commission is expected to operate within. Making the Electoral Commission beholden to Parliament (and thus the Government of the day) would greatly diminish its operational independence, making it a weaker and less impartial institution.

Smith also proposed to increase the remit of the Speaker’s Committee (which the Commission currently reports to), making the Commission more accountable to the Committee for its “performance and delivery of general objectives”. In theory this is no great threat to the Commission’s independence but in practice, with Westminster’s governing party holding a majority on the Committee, it would further bring the Commission under the Government’s control. 

The Electoral Commission’s capacity to prosecute will also be clearly ruled out, with ministers arguing that it “wastes public money” and preferring to keep that responsibility firmly within the remit of the police and Crown Prosecution Service. This constitutes the removal of a potentially important accountability enforcement mechanism for the Commission. An already stretched CPS does not need this extra burden. The Commission, specialists in the area, should be given the resources and power to properly prosecute infringements of electoral law. 

The bill will also “introduce a new electoral sanction, so that somebody convicted of intimidating a candidate, future candidate, campaigner or elected representative will be banned for 5 years from standing for and holding elective office.” As most online abusers are not standing for – nor do they show any interest in standing for office, this is an ineffective and pointless deterrent. 

Beyond that, another bill is in its second reading in the House of Commons that seeks to abolish the Electoral Commission entirely. While the bill will be unsuccessful, it demonstrates a consistent commitment from sections of Parliament against the Commission.

Smith also outlined “reforms to political financing, campaigning and advertising.” Campaigners would need to register with the Electoral Commission if they are spending over £10,000 across the UK on political campaigning during election periods. This is a small step in the right direction. Ideally, all campaign organisations, third party or official, should have an exit “audit” with the Electoral Commission following the election period. 

Also mentioned was “tighter rules to reduce the risk of ineligible overseas involvement” by “ensuring that campaign spending can come only from sources that have a genuine and legitimate interest in UK elections.” This is pointing in a good direction, but genuine and legitimate are subjective terms that are hard to define concretely. Corporate donations should be required to come from profits declared in the UK. 

 

Voter ID: 

Unsurprisingly, Chloe Smith MP defended the Electoral Integrity Bill’s focus on voter fraud and touted voter ID as the solution to that alleged problem. She claimed that free ID cards will be made available to all, though it is extremely unclear how exactly that will be possible or where that funding will come from. 

As we’ve seen in trial experiments of Voter ID, more people are turned away, marginalised groups are disproportionately affected, and the increase to voter confidence is negligible. 

 

In conclusion, there are a few welcome details in Smith’s recent statements, but they are greatly overshadowed by reforms that would weaken the Electoral Commission and effectively rescind its independence. This would greatly increase the Government’s authority over the body that is supposed to oversee election regulations. It is not hard to discern the conflict of interest.

The independence of democratic institutions like the Commission is of paramount importance to the health and sustainability of our democracy. In calling to curb the Commission’s independence and touting mandatory voter ID laws, Chloe Smith erodes her own pro-democratic message.

Antitrust Investigations into Facebook are Long Overdue

08/06/2021 Posted by News, Uncategorized 0 thoughts on “Antitrust Investigations into Facebook are Long Overdue”

The European Commission and UK Regulators have formally opened antitrust investigations into Facebook.

It’s about time. 

The investigations, while not focused on the significant democratic harms enabled by the platform, are beginning to scratch the surface of Facebook’s unethical data harvesting business model, back in the spotlight again recently when a data breach of over 500 million users was made public.

The platform has nearly 3 billion monthly active users, all being discreetly surveilled in the background of nearly every single one of Facebook’s features. 

Both investigations are primarily concerned with the vast troves of user data that Facebook holds, and whether that gives them an undue advantage in the online advertising market (it seems fairly obvious that it may). The European Commission is also concerned with whether Facebook benefits from holding data on rival advertisers (again, it probably does). 

This gets to the core of why this platform is so powerful, and in terms of democratic health and societal cohesion, so destructive.

While investigating Facebook’s unfair monopolisation of digital advertising is worthwhile, it gives credence to what activists like us have been saying for years: data-driven targeted advertising, especially when it comes to political ads, is short-sighted, dangerous and unethical. Targeted controversy generates clicks, and clicks generate revenue. Facebook has a clear incentive to undermine truth and democracy.

Fair Vote UK is working to build a stronger coalition around online safety. We hope to use investigations like these as stepping stones to tackling the core problem – an immoral and unsustainable business model that is desperately calling for regulation. 

Some experts have called for nationalising Facebook, arguing that “social media platforms need to be treated like public roads, not private malls.” It doesn’t have to come to that, but Facebook’s extremely toxic business model can not go on much longer without a repeat of January 6th (or something even worse). Let’s tackle this obvious problem before it truly gets out of hand. 

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