Democracy and ‘deterrence’: How out-of-date campaign rules leave the door open to turnout suppression

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 20th October 2020

Presidential elections tend to highlight the best and worst of US democracy.

In 2016, for instance, the winner of the popular vote  did not win the election, due to the electoral college system – a form of First Past the Post on overdrive.

Now it has been revealed that again, the democratic spirit of the US has been undermined, by what looks like the strategic misuse of voter data.

The dark side of online campaigning

In September, data obtained by Channel 4 News showed that the label ‘deterrence’ was applied to 3.5 million black American voters by the Republican campaign in 2016, as part of an apparent attempt to discourage them from showing up on election day.

The cache of data contained highly personal information on a total of 200 million American voters. Political party affiliation, home addresses and income level are just a handful of the types of information the campaign had obtained on these individuals.

It was also reported that the database had ranked voters on their stance on political issues such as healthcare and immigration, as well as scoring them on certain personality traits namely, how open they are as a person.

All of this information was reportedly used to target voters seen as a ‘threat’ to winning. They categorised a part of this target audience as ‘Deterrence’ – individuals that the campaign wasn’t trying to win over, just de-motivate enough that they “don’t show up to vote”.

In 16 swing states, millions of Americans who were in the ‘deterrence’ group, were deliberately targeted with political ads on media platforms such as Facebook, in an act of suppressing turnout for the ‘other’ side.

Facebooks guidelines on political advertisement at the time meant that these ads have no public record of what they consisted of, who paid for them and the audience they were targeted at, which made it easier for political campaigners and parties to operate secretly.

While Facebook has since introduced their own advertising archive, in both the UK and the US, voters still have little idea why they are being targeted with political ads, with transparency rules almost non-existent.

Channel 4 found that some of those behind the ‘deterrence’ anti-voting database also worked with the now-infamous, collapsed British company, Cambridge Analytica.

While the Information Commissioner’s Office did not find illegal activity to have taken place when it reported earlier this month, the ICO found Cambridge Analytica had pursued “shoddy data practices” in UK political campaigning. It highlights the levels of potential wrongdoing that are possible under the UK’s out-of-date election law.

Lessons to be learnt

Without reform and regulation of secretive political campaigning online, we could see such deliberate attempts at suppressing turnout in British politics. Elections should be about winning voters, not make them give up on voting entirely.

Yet the Electoral Commission, which is in charge of safeguarding elections in the UK, is currently being threatened. In contemporary politics, with the dangers of data manipulation and misinformation online, it needs strengthening, not weakening.

The ERS’ new report, Democracy in the Dark, analyses the spending that occurred during the 2019 general election by parties and non-party ‘outriders’ on political advertising. It shows that campaigns were able to target voters with almost no transparency.

The recommendations made in the report are long overdue.

With local elections in England and parliamentary elections soon occurring in Wales and Scotland, we need to see real transparency when it comes to online campaigning – rather than waiting for a fresh scandal to come along.

Akash Thiara is a Placement Student with the Electoral Reform Society from the University of Nottingham.

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