Making referendums fit for a parliamentary democracy: Lords debate responds to recommendations of the Independent Commission on Referendums

On 19 July, a debate took place in the House of Lords on the impact of referendums on parliamentary democracy. During the debate, several speakers drew upon the recently published report of the Independent Commission on Referendums, which was established by the Constitution Unit last year to review the role and conduct of referendums. Jess Sargeant and Basma Yaghi summarise the debate.

On 10 July the Independent Commission on Referendums (the Commission) launched its final report; just a week later the pertinent topic of the role of referendums in parliamentary democracy was debated in the House of Lords. Discussion echoed many of the key points of the Commission’s report, which was regularly cited in support of speakers’ arguments.

Referendums and parliamentary democracy

A major theme of the debate was the tensions that can arise between referendums and representative institutions. In opening the debate its sponsor, Lord Higgins (Conservative), argued that allowing people to vote directly in a referendum diminishes the ability of elected representatives to employ their own judgment regarding the issue at hand. Lord Bilimoria (Crossbench) raised the predicament of MPs whose constituencies voted leave but who believed that it was in the UK’s best interests to remain in the EU. By way of example, he mentioned the difficulties some MPs had experienced when making their decisions as to how to vote on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, an issue discussed by the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell, on our blog. Continue reading

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

The future of referendums: what role should they play and how should they be conducted?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpgTwo decades have passed since there was last a serious consideration of how the UK uses referendums. For this reason, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums to examine whether and how the way in which referendums are regulated in the UK should be changed. Ahead of a public event in Edinburgh, the Commission’s research director, Dr. Alan Renwick, explains its terms of reference. 

The referendum is now entrenched as a part of the UK’s political system. The principle that a referendum is needed before some fundamental constitutional changes – notably in relation to sovereignty – are made has become well established. It seems likely that politicians will continue from time to time to find it useful to manage conflicts by proposing to put certain decisions to the people.

Yet, crucially important though referendums are, there has been little concerted thinking of late about how they should be conducted. Two inquiries carried out in the 1990s – by the UCL Constitution Unit’s Nairne Commission and by the Committee on Standards in Public Life – led to the creation of some basic rules, laid down in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. But these rules were always incomplete: for example, they say nothing about who is entitled to vote in a referendum. They are also now two decades old. Much has changed in the intervening years – not least through the rise of the internet and social media. Four major referendums have also been held in that period – on Welsh devolution (2011), the Westminster voting system (2011), Scottish independence (2014), and EU membership (2016) – from which lessons can be learned. Many observers have been dismayed by the conduct of those referendums, whether they agreed with the results or not. A careful review of whether we could do better is therefore overdue.

That is the task of the Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit last autumn to examine the role and conduct of referendums in the UK and consider what changes might be desirable. Comprising twelve eminent individuals with diverse perspectives on referendums, including current and former parliamentarians, journalists, regulators, and academics, the Commission is due to report this summer. It is keen to hear as many views as possible, it is holding seminars in all of the UK’s capital cities. The Edinburgh seminar is the next in this series, co-hosted with the Royal Society of Edinburgh next Monday. Continue reading

Digital Communication and Elections: Online targeting of voters on social media

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In recent elections and in the EU referendum, concerns have been raised about the online targeting of voters on social media and the use of voter data. At a Constitution Unit seminar, Dr Martin Moore spoke about the shifting nature of online campaigning and examined its impact on the regulatory and legal landscape in the UK. In this blog post, Michela Palese summarises what he said.

Election campaigns have shifted significantly online in recent years. This reflects trends in news and media consumption. Nowadays, around 90% of British adults are online and 84% use social media, with approximately 30 million Britons using Facebook on a regular basis. Furthermore, around three quarters of internet users get their news online and four in ten use social media for news. It is therefore unsurprising that campaigning has shifted to the digital world, given the ease with which voters can be reached in a direct and highly personalised way.

Funding has shifted to digital as well. Campaigners admit that digital is where elections can be won and lost, and this is proven by the successful use they have made of social media. For example, Dominic Cummings stated that the Vote Leave campaign spent around 98% of its budget on digital campaigning. Jim Messina, a former political advisor to Barack Obama and founder of consulting firm The Messina Group, claimed that Facebook was ‘the crucial weapon’ in the Conservative Party’s successful general election campaign in 2015. In the last general election, by contrast, the Labour Party invested significant effort in social media advertising, with its videos being viewed by around ten million internet users.  

At a Constitution Unit seminar, Dr Martin Moore, Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication, and Power at King’s College London, argued that the changing nature of campaigning has highlighted some of the shortcomings in the UK’s regulatory and legal landscape. In particular, Moore noted the concerns which have been raised about the lack of fairness and openness in how campaigns are conducted online. Campaigners have, in fact, much more leeway in what they can do in the digital realm than on print or broadcast platforms. In 2017, both the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission opened investigations into how funds were spent during the EU referendum and into the manner in which voters were targeted on social media. Continue reading

What new challenges does the changing nature of campaigning pose for referendum regulation?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpg jess-sargeant-resizedEarlier this year, the Constitution Unit established an Independent Commission on Referendums to review the role of referendums in British democracy – whose work will be discussed at a public seminar next week. In this blogpost, Alan Renwick and Jess Sargeant examine some of the difficult questions the commission will have to consider. Their focus is on the way in which political campaigning has changed since 2000, when the current legislation regulating referendums was enacted.  

The UK’s current legislation regulating the conduct of referendums – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 – was designed and introduced almost two decades ago. Since then, technological innovations have led to new ways of campaigning and communicating. These changes create new challenges for referendums regulation. While most of these challenges are not unique to referendums – they apply equally to elections – one key task of the Independent Commission on Referendums is to assess how well the existing rules work in the context of new digital developments and to consider solutions to some of the problems posed by the modern world. This blog post explores just some of those challenges.

Financial regulation doesn’t reflect the modern world

Increasingly, political campaigners are using social media to communicate with voters. We know this because we can observe political adverts on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram during elections and referendum campaigns. However, we have very little information about how much money they are spending to do so. This is because financial regulation of political campaigns, first designed in 2000, has yet to be updated to reflect the nature of campaigning in the modern world.

Registered referendum campaign groups are required to submit returns of referendum expenses. The purpose of these transparency requirements is to allow campaign spending to be scrutinised by both the Electoral Commission and the public. Financial transparency requirements apply equally to expenses incurred for online and for offline campaigning. However, how this is reported makes scrutiny of online spending difficult. There is no separate category for spending on social media: such spending is reported as either ‘advertising’ or ‘unsolicited material sent to voters’. Furthermore, within this category it is only identifiable if spent directly with the platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Spending through agencies remains opaque, with no breakdown of how money is used. In this area, it could be argued that transparency requirements are rendered meaningless.

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