A snap General Election risks being undermined by ‘dark ads and dodgy donations’ without emergency legislation to close electoral loopholes, the Electoral Reform Society warn today.
The ERS say political campaigning will be an unregulated ‘wild west’ in a snap election, due to the failure to update campaign rules since the advent of social media.
The ERS have been joined by Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, as well as FairVote and Transparency International UK in calling for emergency legislation to update election campaign rules . The Society say there are a ‘litany of loopholes’ that put the chances of a free and fair election at risk.
The ERS are calling for action on five key issues :
- Dodgy donations: At present the law does not treat donations under £500 to parties or campaigns as ‘donations’. The use of Unincorporated Associations risks anonymising multiple donations from potentially unscrupulous sources, as there is a high threshold for declaring donations through such organisations. Company donors do not currently have to prove that their funds come from their UK-generated activity – opening the door to foreign donations. These loopholes must be closed.
- Real-time reporting: In the medium term, legislation should be introduced to implement ‘real-time’ donation reporting during elections, so the general public can learn about potential conflicts of interests or influences driving the debate before voting is over.
- Dark ads: Foreign states, organisations or individuals are able to influence UK campaigns with online ads with little oversight, while there are serious flaws with the social media giants’ self-declared ‘transparency’ tools. For example, Facebook does not publish which criteria are used to micro-target people or provide details about who is really behind political pages. The government must introduce reliable standards for online ad transparency.
- Regulation with teeth: The Electoral Commission’s maximum £20,000 fine can be seen as the ‘cost of doing business’, and the Electoral Commission also lacks the investigatory powers of the Information Commissioner. The Electoral Commission’s maximum fines must be significantly increased and its investigatory powers bolstered.
- Registration revolution: There are up to 9.4m people missing from the electoral roll, according to the latest Electoral Commission figures . Every possible effort must be made to ensure we have a ‘universal franchise’ and close the registration gap. The ERS are calling for legislation to allow people to ‘opt in’ to the electoral roll whenever they deal with public sector bodies, as part of moves towards more automatic registration.
Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:
“The government must stop dithering when it comes to tackling ‘dark ads’ and dodgy donations steering our politics. There are simple changes that can be made to tighten up the law and protect our electoral integrity – they should be done now.
“It is scandalous that despite years of knowing about these loopholes, no action has been taken. Instead of dealing with potential foreign donors and unscrupulous influencers, the government are targeting ordinary people through imposing mandatory voter ID.
“At the same time, any snap election must involve a historic effort to close the ‘registration gap’, with up to 9.4m people potentially missing from the electoral roll. This is a genuine threat to a universal franchise and the principle of political equality.
“There is a broad consensus that our analogue-age election rules must be updated and soon. Let’s get on with it. This could involve an amendment to a snap election bill to put voters first, and we hope all parties can come together around common-sense plans for reform.”
The primary piece of electoral law came into effect in 2000 – before online campaigning was a serious force. The last election saw parties spend £3.2m on Facebook alone – more than double the figure in 2015. Yet social media ads can be purchased with anonymity and from non-UK accounts.
The ERS are also highlighting a ‘crisis of under-registration’ which could harm the principle of a universal franchise.
The Queen’s Speech promised action later in the year on online political ads – but these will not come into effect before a December election.
There are many examples of online political ads which are pushed with almost no transparency. Last year there were reports that an anonymous website was behind a £250,000 pro-Brexit advertising campaign urging voters to “bin” Theresa May’s Brexit deal. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-45926892
In 2018, the ERS and many others submitted to the government’s consultation on protecting democracy, with the Society urging the government to require political adverts published online to include ‘imprints’ stating their real origin and funder. This recommendation has still not been implemented, with the government accused of ‘dragging their feet’.
The proposed change to legislation would bring rules for online adverts – including those published on Facebook and Twitter – in line with long-standing rules for printed election materials. More information here: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/why-we-cant-leave-our-democracy-at-the-whim-of-tech-giants-like-facebook/
Notes to Editors
 Full briefing available at: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fair-elections-under-threat-The-Loophole-List-1.pdf
Read the ERS’ 2019 report: “Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century”
See Transparency International’s recent recommendations for reducing the risk of corruption in UK politics: https://www.transparency.org.uk/wp-content/plugins/download-attachments/includes/download.php?id=1014