Updating campaign regulation for the digital era

John Pullinger, chair of the Electoral Commission, argues digital campaign regulations need  an ‘overhaul’ to make the electoral process more transparent and accessible to voters, thereby increasing confidence in the system in a manner that doesn’t discourage parties, candidates and campaigners to take in part in elections. He also calls on the UK’s parliaments to show that they do not tolerate the use of online activities that undermine democracy.

Digital channels are transforming our democracy. Action now can harness that transformation to make political campaigns better. Without the right action, our democracy may not be resilient in the face of the challenges posed by the digital era. But there is nothing unique to elections in this. It applies in the same way to how technological change is affecting so many aspects of our lives. And we can respond in the same way.

Voters can already be sceptical about what they see on social media and practise the art of asking. Who is telling me this? Can I be sure it is really from them? Why are they telling me this? Can I believe what they are saying? How can I check it out? Parties, candidates and campaigners can already use digital tools like imprints to show where information is coming from.

Other voices can already accentuate the positive and shame the bad. Social media platforms, news organisations, influencers and fact checkers increasingly see this as central to their own reputation. A platform is not neutral. It has values and shows its true colours by how it acts. By standing on the sidelines, they are getting the message that they will be seen to be complicit in undermining democracy. By standing tall they can see that they can provide a vital public service that will enhance their brand.

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Online harms to democracy: the government’s change of approach

Two years after the publication of the government’s Online Harms white paper, the government has published its final consultation response. Its commitment in the white paper to legislate to prevent online harms to democracy has disappeared, to the frustration of many inside and outside parliament. Alex Walker reflects on the government’s decision to ‘abandon the field’ and argues that a laissez-faire approach could lead to negative consequences.

It is expected that the Queen’s Speech on 11 May will include the government’s long-awaited Online Safety Bill. This will be a major piece of legislation with significant implications for the regulation of digital technology companies in the UK. However, when it is introduced it now seems highly unlikely that it will encompass measures to prevent harms to democracy, as was initially indicated.

The Online Harms white paper published in April 2019 set out a position that recognised the dangers that digital technology could pose to democracy and proposed measures to tackle them. This was followed by an initial consultation response in February 2020 and a full response in December. In the course of the policy’s development, the democracy aspect of the proposals has disappeared. The government now points instead to other areas of activity. This represents a shift away from the ambition of the white paper, which promised to address online harms ‘in a single and coherent way.’

Online Harms white paper: April 2019

The white paper first put forward the government’s intention for a statutory duty of care that would make companies responsible for harms caused on their platforms. This would include illegal harmful content, such as child abuse and terrorist material, but also some forms of harmful but legal content, including disinformation and misinformation. The white paper explicitly framed some of its proposals for tackling online harms in relation to the consequences for democracy. It detailed some of the harms that can be caused, including the manipulation of individual voters through micro-targeting, deepfakes, and concerted disinformation campaigns. It concluded that online platforms are ‘inherently vulnerable to the efforts of a few to manipulate and confuse the information environment for nefarious purposes, including undermining trust’. It recognised that there is a distinction to be drawn between legitimate influence and illegitimate manipulation.

The white paper also set out what the government expected to be in the regulators’ Code of Practice, and what would be required to fulfil the duty of care. This included: using fact-checking services, particularly during election periods; limiting the visibility of disputed content; promoting authoritative news sources and diverse news content; and processes to tackle those who misrepresent their identity to spread disinformation. It stated that action is needed to combat the spread of false and misleading information in part because it can ‘damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament.’

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The 2020 US presidential election: nine lessons

As reported in the latest issue of Monitor, the US presidential election raised even more constitutional issues and questions about the US system of elections than many anticipated. Colin Provost and Nadia Hilliard of the UCL Centre for US Politics discuss how the election was administered, and the roles of the judiciary, Electoral College and social media in the process.

The US presidential election of 2020 has been perceived by many observers as one of the most important elections in American history. A highly polarised electorate turned out in record numbers in the middle of a pandemic and for the first time, the incumbent president refused to concede after a clear result, while pushing a steady, yet unsubstantiated series of claims about voter fraud and voting irregularities. Given the highly unusual set of circumstances surrounding this election, it is worth considering how well US institutions performed with respect to the conduct of a free and fair election, and what lessons should be learned for future electoral cycles.

1. States can run elections smoothly.

Although federal laws that are harmonised across the states might seem to make more sense for national elections, the US Constitution allows each state to set its own election laws, as long as they are in compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other relevant, federal legislation. Keeping that in mind, it is important not to understate the fact that, on average, the states performed well in terms of administration of this election. Despite the pandemic, millions of people were able to vote and perhaps more importantly, a large subset of those people were able to vote by mail, so that they would not have to put their health in jeopardy by waiting in long – and often cramped – queues. Ultimately, those votes were all counted, even if a victor could not be declared until 7 November —five days after election day.

2. US electoral institutions are resilient.

The institutions of election administration proved to be resilient in the face of baseless allegations of voter fraud and voting irregularities: those allegations were many, and continue to be made. In a normal election year, post-election lawsuits are practically non-existent, but in 2020, the Trump campaign filed dozens of lawsuits across several states, nearly all of which have been found to be lacking in merit, while tweeting inaccurate information about the election and its results. Georgia senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler suggested that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger – the state official in charge of overseeing elections and certifying the results – should resign after not finding evidence of electoral fraud in that state. Additionally, President Trump invited the leadership of the Michigan legislature to the White House, apparently with the goal of getting them to nominate different electors to the Electoral College that formally votes in the new president than those selected by the Michigan Democratic Party. The only legal basis for this occurring is if one believed that Joe Biden did not clearly or lawfully win the state, even though his margin of victory was in excess of 150,000 votes. Finally, a large number of Trump allies in Congress, the media and elsewhere supported these actions, implicitly or explicitly. Despite all these challenges, the votes were counted and certified by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

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Elections and COVID-19: how can next May’s polls go ahead safely and democratically during a pandemic?

Elections set to take place across the UK in May 2020 were postponed for 12 months due to COVID-19. Election administrators and policymakers now have less than eight months to prepare for the possibility of holding polls during a pandemic. Sarah Birch, co-author of a recent British Academy briefing on holding safe and democratic elections during COVID-19, discusses the key obstacles to a successful poll and offers some recommendations for making sure the May elections are fair and safe.

An election requires the largest peace-time mobilisation that any state has to undertake. Even at the best of times, this is a major administrative feat. Conducting an election during a pandemic is far more daunting still, as electoral authorities have to consider the health of voters, polling and counting staff and campaign organisers, together with the health of democracy. 

If an election is to serve democratic aims, it is hugely important that it is both fair and seen to be fair. Those running elections while COVID-19 remains a problem must clearly safeguard the process in terms of the health of those involved; they will also need to ensure popular confidence in procedures that will in some ways be different from what voters are used to. 

Any change to normal practices is bound to attract attention, and potentially suspicion. The recent British Academy report, How to hold elections safely and democratically during the COVID-19 pandemic’, indicates that there are several things that electoral authorities can do to make sure that COVID-specific measures work.

If the pandemic has not been vanquished by May 2021, these suggestions may be of use to elected representatives and administrators in Scotland, Wales, London and local authorities across England, all of whom will be making arrangements for polling. These recommendations are also relevant to countries around the world that are preparing elections over the coming months.

Firstly, it makes sense for electoral authorities to use strategies that are part of their existing toolkits, rather than trying out completely new ideas (such as internet voting) that cannot be tested properly in the time available. The UK has extensive experience of postal voting, so this is a tool that can be relied on and potentially promoted for wider use. 

It will not make sense to implement other changes to the electoral system at this point, such as the proposed introduction of ID at UK polling stations. Pandemic-related measures will be challenging enough to develop, introduce and communicate, without the government also trying to roll out a whole new way of voting.

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