What Would a Robust Elections Bill Look Like?

27/08/2021 News

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.