snap election

Elections Bill introduced; aims for transparency in online campaigns

The government has introduced its controversial Elections Bill to Parliament this week. This legislation is apparently intended to strengthen the integrity of the process, including new measures to regulate online campaign, but has already been criticised as being antidemocratic.

The government said that its Elections Bill will strengthen the integrity of electoral processes and make it “more inclusive”.

Among the measures in the bill will be a new “digital imprints regime” to govern online campaign materials. According to proposals detailed last year, the measures will force parties and campaigners from anywhere in the world to link their campaign content to their identity with a digital imprint. The idea behind this measure is to ensure that voters have the same transparency from online materials as they do from leaflets posted through their letterbox. Facebook has already introduced a “paid for by” disclaimer to political advertisements on its platforms.

Concern about misleading political advertising, including state-backed psychological warfare weaponising political information, peaked with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This prompted a widespread discussion about how to regulate political advertising on online platforms. Twitter has since banned political advertising; Google has banned micro-targeting of political advertising, and Facebook now allows users to switch off political advertising, although it has upheld the right of politicians to lie in adverts.

Digital imprints will allow the regulator to better monitor who is promoting election material and hence enforce spending rules, the government said. They were recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, in its review into intimidation and abuse of public figures.

Third-party campaign groups spending more than £10,000 will have to register, while laws will be tightened to ensure that only UK-based or “otherwise eligible” donors can fund election-related activities. Other measures are concerned with clarification of the law on “undue influence” of voters and restrictions on the handling of postal votes; party campaigners will be banned from handling postal votes and other people will be limited in the number of postal votes they can handle on behalf of others.

By far the most controversial part of the Election Bill is a measure which will require voters all across the UK to show photo ID before casting their ballots; the government says that this will combat voter fraud. Similar measures have been enforced in Northern Ireland since 2003.

The Electoral Commission said that the UK has “low levels of proven electoral fraud”. In the 2019 general election, for instance, there was just four convictions for electoral fraud out of 595 allegations investigated by the police. Nearly 50 million votes were cast in total during the election.

Critics have warned that millions could be disenfranchised by the new requirement, with non-white voters disproportionately shut out. The government countered criticism by stating that a free Voter Card will be made available from councils for any individuals not in possession of an officially sanctioned form of ID, but it still faces a Supreme Court challenge over its voter ID pilots and strong bipartisan opposition.

Former Tory Brexit Secretary David Davis told The Independent that there is “no evidence” of voter fraud at the ballot box. Shadow Democracy Minister Cat Smith commented: “Voting is safe and secure in Britain. Ministers should be promoting confidence in our elections instead of spreading baseless scare stories which threaten our democracy; this Trumpian tactic has no place in our democracy. We’ve already seen how Conservative ministers ignore the rules, now they are trying to change the rules and rig our democracy in their favour.”

The Electoral Reform Society said the plans could lead to “disenfranchisement on an industrial scale”; similar criticisms of the Voter ID scheme have been raised by Stonewall, Liberty, Operation Black Vote, and the National Union Students.

Constitution minister Chloe Smith said: “Our democracy is precious, and to continue to protect it, we need to update our laws to ensure they are fit for purpose and in line with the modern world. The Bill will strengthen the integrity of our elections, by increasing transparency, fairness and accountability; providing more protection for candidates and voters; and making our polls more inclusive. And crucially it will provide more protection for both candidates and voters.”

“Robust debate has always been a fundamental part of our democracy, and freedom of expression is part of its appeal, but a line is crossed when disagreement mutates into intimidation and abuse that shuts down free debate.”

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