How can we improve discourse during elections and referendums?

The Constitution Unit has recently launched a year-long project, which seeks to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In this blog post, Alan Renwick and Michela Palese set out the motivations and plan for their project, along with some initial findings.

Following the 2016 EU referendum campaign, concerns over the quality of political discourse have been raised by people of all political persuasions. For example, the Electoral Commission’s report on the EU referendum found that only 34 per cent of respondents agreed that the campaign had been conducted in a fair and balanced way, with 52 per cent disagreeing and 34 per cent disagreeing strongly. The most common reasons given were that the campaign had been ‘one-sided/unbalanced/biased/partial’ and that the information provided was ‘inaccurate and misleading’. Similarly, the House of Commons Treasury Committee reported that ‘The public debate is being poorly served by inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’. Efforts to tackle the spread of misleading statements and so-called ‘fake news’ have recently been increasing in the run-up to the UK general election on 8 June.

Despite such widespread concerns over the prevalence of misinformation and the need for fair and balanced debate, little research has been conducted on the quality, as opposed to the quantity, of electoral participation and deliberation. Our project, which is generously funded by the McDougall Trust, aims to fill this gap by examining measures for improving the quality of public discussion during election and referendum campaigns. If appropriate, we will conclude by making reform proposals for the UK.

We have begun our work by surveying existing practice across a wide range of democracies, which will allow us to identify areas and options deserving of more detailed investigation. Through this preparatory research, we have tentatively identified three sets of options:

1/ Interventions designed to prevent misinformation by directly banning campaigners from making false or misleading statements. 

So far as we are aware, the most developed application of this approach is in South Australia, where the Electoral Act of 1985 states that ‘A person who authorises, causes or permits the publication of an electoral advertisement … is guilty of an offence if the advertisement contains a statement purporting to be a statement of fact that is inaccurate and misleading to a material extent’. Similar measures can also be found in New Zealand and some US states, such as Oregon. This option gained some traction in the UK after the EU referendum. Last July, for example, 50 MPs signed an early day motion calling for the establishment of an ‘Office of Electoral Integrity (OEI) to factually verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns, with powers to issue clarifications and fines where appropriate’.

2/ Interventions designed to provide high-quality, impartial information so as to enable citizens to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate claims, and make an informed decision. Mechanisms to provide independent, impartial information to the electorate are widely used, perhaps most notably in Ireland and New Zealand. In these two jurisdictions, the respective Referendum Commission and Electoral Commission undertake information campaigns aimed at increasing the electorate’s awareness of the issues being debated through booklets, websites and television broadcasts. In New Zealand, the Electoral Commission has in some cases not only described the referendum proposal, but also provided criteria and information on the implications of each option so as to help voters make an informed decision. The importance of providing the electorate with high-quality information was recently highlighted in a report by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which argued that, when holding a referendum, ‘there should be proper information about, and planning for, either outcome’. In PACAC’s view, this would increase clarity as to the implications of the vote – thus allowing citizens to rise above the confusion caused by misleading statements advanced by campaigners – and contribute to legitimising referendums as a practice of true direct democracy.

3/ Interventions designed to foster citizen deliberation by creating spaces in which citizens can engage in well-structured, informed and inclusive deliberation.

This measure combines the provision of information with the active engagement of citizens in deliberative discussion. ‘Citizen initiative reviews’ have been held in Oregon at each electoral cycle since 2010. Each review is conducted by a panel composed of a representative sample of the electorate, selected at random, which is convened to learn about and discuss a ballot proposition over a period of four or five days. After hearing from experts, academics and campaigners, the panel deliberates on the issue and produces a statement for and/or against the measure, which is included in the information pamphlet sent to all voters. This is similar to the process used for pilot citizens’ assemblies in Southampton and Sheffield in 2015 and for a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit taking place in September, all involving or led by the Constitution Unit.

Having conducted our initial survey, we are now embarking on detailed study of six cases, which will enable us to understand how the various mechanisms for improving the quality of discourse have been implemented in practice and what effects they have had. This will involve interviews and analysis of a range of documents and of media reporting. We will report preliminary findings from time to time on this blog.

The project aims to provide an evidence base that can support reforms designed to strengthen the quality of debate during election and referendum campaigns in the UK. The final phase of our work will therefore consider whether and how the various mechanisms could or should be implemented in the UK. We will present our final results in a Constitution Unit report setting out the options and making clear recommendations for the UK. We expect to publish this at the end of the project in spring 2018.

About the authors

Dr Alan Renwick is the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.

Michela Palese is a Research Assistant (McDougall Fellow) at the Constitution Unit, working on the Improving Discourse During Election and Referendum Campaigns project.

2 thoughts on “How can we improve discourse during elections and referendums?

  1. We might, as a start, insist that the OBR makes a statement on the effects on the public finances of the manifesto pledges of the various parties as they are already required to do so for Government policies and for the winning party, the former become the latter.

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