Happy birthday to the Electoral Commission – now let’s give it the powers it needs

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Posted on the 30th November 2020

This Monday marks 20 years since the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 received Royal Assent. It was an act which set up the Electoral Commission, the UK’s independent elections watchdog – and tackled the previously shocking lack of transparency when it came to parties’ and campaigners’ funding.

Since then, a lot has changed in politics – not least the rise of online campaigning. The year 2000 was a totally differently campaigning landscape to today.

But there has been little action taken to modernise and enhance transparency around political processes over the past two decades, despite all the changes we’ve seen.

Loopholes emerging

Since its establishment, the Electoral Commission has accomplished a lot in improving transparency of our elections. For instance, political parties are now required to submit quarterly donations and spending returns to the Commission to ensure that no party benefits from an unfair advantage, and that there is transparency around political campaigning.

But with the rapid rise of online campaigning, loopholes in our out-dated regulations have been exposed and exploited, in part, because the rules were designed for the analogue age.

As mentioned in the ERS’ latest report, Democracy in the Dark, the 2019 general election saw the rise of the ‘outrider’ – non-party groups who could spend large sums on online political ads without having to reveal their backers. Without digital imprints and a single, publicly accessible archive for political ads, voters will continue to have the bare minimum of transparency about who is targeting them.

A must-have birthday present

Without enhanced powers fit for the age of online campaigning, the Electoral Commission will have one hand tied behind its back.

As a first step to tackling the unregulated world of online campaigning, the government must commit to a timeline for introducing online ‘imprints’ – showing who is behind political ads online. Ministers have pledged action – but we need more than warm words.

After that, the ERS is calling for the current sanctions the Electoral Commission can levy to be increased. Current fines – a maximum of £20,000 per offence – can merely be viewed as the ‘cost of doing business’, as they amount to a small fraction of what campaigners can spend.

On the Electoral Commission’s 20th birthday, the government should give our independent watchdog the clout it needs – and protect our democracy from threats we couldn’t predict 20 years ago.

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

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