Responding to the challenges of digital democracy during Ireland’s abortion referendum

com.google.Chrome.eocx2f (1)On 25 May, Ireland voted by a two-to-one margin to allow its parliament (the Oireachtas) to change the constitution in a way that would legalise abortion. In this post, Liz Carolan discusses the role of digital media in the referendum campaign, the challenges it poses for democracy, and potential solutions to the problems she observed.

Background

When it was announced that there was to be a referendum on abortion in Ireland, not many people anticipated a landslide; I certainly did not. I had spent the previous five months trying to monitor the financial and information flows behind digital political advertising, witnessing attempts at overseas interference, disinformation campaigns, and unregistered spending. With a tight result predicted by both polls and campaigns, I thought it was naive to think that the digital campaign would not be a deciding factor.

The Irish vote had real and concrete implications at home, but there were international stakes as well. Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion was held up by activists in the US and elsewhere as an example to be emulated. Pro-choice advocates globally were watching too, as Ireland’s vote to legalise same sex marriage in 2015 had emboldened equal marriage activists around the world.

So long before polling day, threats to the proper functioning of the referendum were evident to those of us spending time thinking about technology and democracy. The first threat was that overseas or untraceable financing would be used to try to influence the vote. The second was that deliberate disinformation campaigns could spread untruths, disparage campaigners, and polarise or isolate voters. The last was that a large amount of campaign spending could happen under the radar.

Digital advertisements are particularly interesting because they bring together money, information, and the algorithms that determine who sees what, and importantly who doesn’t. They are often only seen by those targeted with them and they are ephemeral, with the ability to appear and vanish without leaving a trace. They had been an avenue for the alleged overseas interference and deliberate disinformation campaigns during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election.

The work of the Transparent Referendum Initiative

Looking at the ongoing investigations into these cases, it appeared that investigators and legislators alike were having challenges even knowing what had happening online during the voting period. So in February some colleagues and I launched the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI). We decided to build a database of as many ads as we could, to make it available to as many people as possible, in as close to real-time as possible. We did this so the ads could be exposed to scrutiny, fact-checking, and source-tracing, so that any media or regulatory response could be swift and contemporaneous, rather than retrospective. Continue reading

Reforming referendums: how can their use and conduct be improved?

jess.sargeant.resizedalan_renwick_webThis week’s turbulent political events represent the fallout from a referendum where the consequences of a ‘change vote’ were unclear. This is just one of many concerns raised about recent UK referendums. To reflect on such problems and consider possible solutions, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums. Here Jess Sargeant and Alan Renwick summarise the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations.

The Independent Commission on Referendums has published its final report today. This sets out almost 70 conclusions and recommendations, all agreed unanimously by the 12 distinguished Commissioners, who span the major divides in recent referendums. The report is the product of eight months of discussion and deliberation amongst the Commissioners, backed by comprehensive Constitution Unit research into referendums in the UK and other democracies. The Commission has also consulted widely with experts and the public, including seminars in each of the four constituent countries of the UK. We hope that, like the work of the Constitution Unit’s previous commission on referendums, this report will set the agenda for debate about the future use and conduct of referendums. 

Background

The use of referendums internationally has increased dramatically over the past three decades. This has been driven partly by changing public expectations of democracy: deference has declined and public desire for input in decision-making has grown. The UK experience has mirrored this trend. Following the first non-local referendum in 1973, there were three further such polls in the 1970s. A further nine non-local referendums have been held since the late 1990s – two of which were UK-wide.

Unlike many countries, the UK has no formal rules regarding when or on what a referendum should happen. As explored in an earlier blogpost, decisions to hold such votes have been driven by a mixture of principle and pragmatism. Nonetheless, conventions have emerged for holding referendums on fundamental questions to do with devolution and the European Union; in some cases, these conventions have even been codified in law. Referendums provide a mechanism for entrenchment in the absence of a codified constitution: decisions explicitly endorsed by the electorate are hard to reverse without further reference to the people.

The role of referendums in democracy

Referendums can enhance democracy: they can answer fundamental questions about who ‘the people’ are, strengthen the legitimacy of major decisions, and allow the public a direct say on major issues.

But referendums can also in some ways inhibit democracy. Voting is central to democracy, but so are processes such as deliberation, compromise and scrutiny. Binary referendum campaigns don’t necessarily create space for these: rather, they can encourage polarisation and division. Badly designed referendum processes can also risk undermining the institutions of representative democracy, which are essential for democratic governance across the board. There are also some topics, such as those affecting minority rights, where using such a majoritarian device may be inappropriate.

Thus, the Commission recommends that referendums be used with caution. Engaging the public in policy-making processes is essential, but there are often better ways of doing so. Continue reading

The Labour Party’s long-standing lethargy over House of Lords reform

s200_pete.dorey (1)Labour recently announced that any new peers it nominates must commit to abolishing the House of Lords. In this post, Pete Dorey discusses Labour’s track record on Lords reform and why the party has failed to enact serious reforms when in government, arguing that the subject has suffered from a lack of intra-party consensus and a lack of serious interest in reform at ministerial level.

It is a clear reflection of the political turbulence and febrile atmosphere wrought by Brexit that some prominent Conservatives, and pro-Conservative newspapers, have attacked the House of Lords for daring to obstruct ‘the people’s will’, with regard to tabling significant amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Of course, there is delicious irony in such condemnation, given that support for Brexit has long been couched in a discourse about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, whereby Westminster, not Brussels, should be the locus of all political decisions affecting the British people.

That it is also Conservatives who have recently denounced the unrepresentative and undemocratic character of the House of Lords is even more ironic, not to say hypocritical, given that the Conservative Party has hitherto been a staunch defender of the unelected second chamber – bitterly opposing the 1999 removal of most hereditary peers – particularly when Labour has mooted reforms to render it more politically representative, and/or curb its (limited) power.

That such reforms have only occasionally and sporadically been enacted by Labour governments has not been due to Conservative opposition, however, but to disagreements within the Labour Party itself over the desirability and details of Lords’ reform. Condemning the socially and politically unrepresentative character of the House of Lords, and its veto power, has been easy for Labour MPs and ministers, but intra-party agreement on what exactly should be done to remedy these apparent defects has proved rather more elusive. There are four main reasons why Labour governments have only pursued House of Lords reform sporadically, rather than systematically. Continue reading

How to rig an election

nic.cheeseman.oxfamOCkVQdGe_400x400 (1)As elections become more prevalent as the stated method of choosing who governs, is the world actually becoming less democratic? In their new book, How to Rig an ElectionNic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas argue that the increase in voting has not led to a corresponding rise in the embracing of democratic norms, with voter intimidation, strategic misinformation, and ballot-rigging common in many countries that describe themselves as democratic.

The greatest political paradox of our time is this: there are more elections than ever before, but the world is becoming less democratic.

Nowadays, elections are held almost everywhere. The vast majority of governments at least go through the motions of election campaigns, and are rhetorically committed to allowing citizens to cast ballots to choose the leaders who will govern them. However, in many places, that choice is little more than an illusion: the contest is rigged from the start.

In our new book, How to Rig an Election, we argue that elections have been co-opted by regimes across the globe to tighten their grip on power. Previously, it was assumed that a deluge of elections would lead to a flood of incumbents losing power. Instead, a small proportion of incumbents are losing office, and in some places, like sub-Saharan Africa, we actually find little difference in incumbent turnover rates since the ‘Third Wave of Democracy’ swept across the continent in the late 1980s. Some single-party dictatorships are actually less stable than ‘counterfeit democracies’ that are authoritarian but hold ostensibly multi-party elections. In other words, if you want to stay in power, rigging elections is preferable to not holding them at all. Continue reading

Representation in Britain: Learning about parliamentary candidates and their experiences

Photo.001On 18 June, the Constitution Unit and the Hansard Society co-hosted an event in parliament marking the launch of Representation in Britain, a four-year ESRC funded study of parliamentary candidates standing in the 2015 and 2017 general elections by the Representative Audit of Britain (RAB) team. Lotte Hargrave offers a summary of what was said. 

The event shared research and insights into key questions around selection, campaigning, and representation in Britain: who are our parliamentary candidates; what motivates them to stand; how much does it cost to run; and are candidates representative of the constituents they serve? The event was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, with presentations from Professor Rosie Campbell, Dr Sofia Collignon Delmar, Dr Stefanie Reher, Dr Javier Sajuria, Professor Maria Sobolewska, and Lord Hayward, the last of whom served on the Political Polling and Digital Media Committee. In this blog, we summarise key insights from RAB research on a range of topics.

Professor Rosie Campbell,  Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

Professor Campbell began by introducing the motivation for the study, citing the need for a reliable source of data on the profiles, motivations, and opinions of parliamentary candidates. The RAB began as a study of candidates standing in the 2015 general election, however following Theresa May’s decision to instigate a snap election, the team also surveyed candidates standing in 2017. Campbell noted the survey’s response rates – 57% in 2015 and 51% in 2017 – figures comparable with, and in some cases higher than, previous candidate studies. Alongside the survey, in 2015, 44 qualitative interviews were carried out that proved invaluable for reinforcing the robust nature of the quantitative data. Campbell highlighted that the purpose of the Audit was not to offer policy recommendations to parties or parliament, but to provide an independent and reliable source of data on the attitudes and experiences of UK parliamentary hopefuls. Continue reading