Regulating election campaign spending

By Sir John Holmes, Chair, UK Electoral CommissionSir John Holmes

The last weeks have seen significant coverage of the issue of the regulation of political campaigning, much of it focusing on two sets of linked, but very different investigations.

The Electoral Commission undertook the first of these following the General Election of 2015. We investigated the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties and found all three had failed to meet the legal requirements for their central party, national spending returns. We fined all three to varying extents, reflecting the severity of these failures and levels of cooperation during the investigatory process. These were civil penalties for the central parties’ failure to meet the requirements of what should be included in their spending returns as set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

The second set of investigations were those undertaken by the police, following complaints to them from members of the public, in some instances then referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for decisions on whether to pursue prosecutions. These were criminal investigations into whether individual candidates and agents had broken the Representation of the People Act 1983 by failing to complete their local, candidate spending returns correctly. For candidates, this requires a criminal standard of proof and knowingly intending to mislead. In relation to the national party offences investigated by the Electoral Commission such intent was not required and resulted in civil fines.

This difference of approach can create confusion for the public. Indeed, we have proposed that we should regulate candidate spending as well as party spending, to ensure consistency. However, the current laws are well established and clear on what is required. It is therefore regrettable that some have treated the outcomes of the two cases as somehow incompatible or claimed that one undermines the credibility of the other.

The failings found by the Electoral Commission in the central party returns meant, in the case of the Conservatives, that some individual candidate spending returns did not include all the required spend. Indeed, the CPS indicated that this was consistent with their findings. Whether these omissions meant candidates had committed a criminal offence was then rightly investigated by the police and CPS. While the Commission referred two individuals to the police – the ‘responsible person’ at central level for both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives – we did not refer any individual candidates.

Ensuring transparency for the public was at the heart of Parliament’s decision to set the rules the Commission oversees. Our detailed, evidence-based investigatory reports are all available on our website. In each of the recent cases, the party concerned has paid the fine promptly. Since then, we have provided fresh guidance to political parties enabling them to strengthen their systems and understanding of the requirements. Compliance is preferable to investigation of apparent failures to follow the rules.

What does this mean for the current General Election campaign? We have one of the most transparent and strict systems in the world, not least on the issue of political finance. Elections in the UK are well run and highly respected internationally. It is important that the rules are overseen by an impartial Electoral Commission and that money continues not to play an excessive role in our democratic processes, not least because we know the public is concerned about this.

We will therefore be watching this election carefully too. Political campaigning is the lifeblood of any election or referendum, seeking to reach and inform voters and to engage in debate, and should not be fettered excessively or unnecessarily. Our role is not to stand in the way, but to understand campaigning activity, including the new possibilities offered by social media, and to ensure fairness and transparency about where money is spent to influence people’s votes.

We will continue to be proactive in providing advice and guidance to those we regulate, but at the end of the day we do not exist to serve them. The interests of the public are and must be at the centre of everything that we do. As well as closely monitoring the campaign, in the coming weeks we will be publishing weekly data on donations and loans to political parties. Following the election, we will audit and report on campaign spending, and on what changes to the regulatory regime may be required in order to secure and improve trust in our democratic processes. Maintaining public faith in the integrity of our elections will remain our principal goal.

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Living overseas? Don’t miss out on having your say in the UK general election

By Emma Hartley, Head of Campaigns, UK Electoral Commission

Lots of UK citizens who live overseas don’t know that they may be able to vote in the general election on 8 June 2017.

With the election just around the corner, it’s important that you ensure you’re registered to vote as soon as possible.

To register as an overseas voter you must have been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years. If you were too young when you left the UK to have been registered, then you can register as an overseas voter if your parents (or guardians) were registered in the UK in the last 15 years.

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You can register to vote online now at gov.uk/register-to-vote.

If you were registered for the EU referendum and you haven’t been asked to renew your registration then you do not need to re-register to vote in the UK general election. If you have been asked to renew your registration and haven’t yet done so, make sure you renew as soon as possible.

If you’re unsure, you can contact your local authority in the UK. Find their details on our yourvotematters.co.uk website.

Once registered, we strongly encourage you to apply to vote by proxy, which means appointing somebody you trust in the UK to vote on your behalf. You can download an application form on yourvotematters.co.uk.

We know overseas voters find it challenging to apply for, receive, complete and return their postal votes in time to have their say. That’s why you should consider whether a proxy vote might be more convenient. 

If you’re registered to vote in Northern Ireland as an overseas voter, you are unable to vote by post as ballot papers cannot be sent to an address outside of the UK. So you must apply to vote by proxy by 5pm on Thursday 18 May.

Don’t miss out! Make sure you’re ready to vote today.

Share this blog to ensure your friends and family can have their say in the UK general election this June. Pass the message on that #YourVoteMatters!

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The Commission and the 2017 UK General Election

AV4A0719The announcement of the General Election on 8 June came before the dust had settled finally on some aspects of the regulation of the 2015 campaign. That is the nature of democratic politics. In any case, the Electoral Commission had contingency plans in place. We are already playing our part in helping local authorities and others to make sure the electoral process runs smoothly. We will be working to ensure that candidate and party campaigning is conducted according to the rules and regulations set by Parliament under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and most recently in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act of 2000 – the Act which set up the Commission.

We are also responsible for the campaign to drive voter registration ahead of the poll. This will begin on 8 May and lead up to the registration deadline on Monday 22 May. There will be the usual mixture of advertising and work with partners such as Facebook. We aim to reach both a general audience and under-registered groups, such as young people, students and home-movers. The recent run of electoral events has increased levels of registration, but there is no room for complacency. We will continue to encourage all those eligible and not already on the electoral roll to register.

Our electoral system has major strengths. The results of elections are rarely contested. The processes of registering voters, and casting and counting votes, are tried and tested, and carried out with great transparency. There are of course improvements which could be made, in areas like automatic registration and better protection against fraud. The Electoral Commission has made many such recommendations over the years. We will go on doing so where we see a strong case for change. But the system is certainly not broken.

Similarly we have one of the most transparent regimes in the world governing donations to political parties and their spending during election campaigns. In this area too there is scope for improvement, and the Commission has made recommendations accordingly. Some have been adopted, though others remain on the table. We will continue to seek further refinements in the future. In particular the nature of campaigns is changing as the digital age advances. Money is being spent in different ways, and we need to be sure that this is properly reported.

Voters can therefore be sure that we will be monitoring the current campaign closely. We will not hesitate to intervene if we think that the rules and regulations are being broken, or are about to be. We will also be looking afterwards with a careful eye at the spending returns by the parties and others to make sure that the rules were indeed followed. We are issuing updated guidance to the parties before the campaign proper starts on what and how they should report, and will be talking to the main players to reduce the scope for misunderstandings. We hope this will avoid the need for investigations and fines of the kind we saw after the 2015 General Election.

We will be paying particular attention to the breakdown of spending between parties on the national level and candidates in individual constituencies. We will also be alert to the ways in which social media and other digital tools are being used. We do not want to restrict normal campaigning in any way. Campaigning is the life blood of any election. But we are aware that new techniques are always being tried. We need to keep up to make sure that the fairness of the overall process is not undermined.

Another area of focus will be the activities of non-party campaigners. They must register with us if between 9 June last year and polling day on 8 June this year they have or are likely to spend more than £20,000 in England and more than £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and NI. Once more, the aim is not to stop this kind of campaigning, but simply to make sure that it is transparent.

At the Commission we are confident that this election will be well-run and anticipate it will be fairly fought, even if the arguments between the parties become fierce at times. But we are also aware that we can never take this for granted. The price of democracy is eternal vigilance. That is why we need to be alert and active during and after the campaign. Public confidence in our democracy and our electoral system must not be allowed to falter.

Sir John Holmes, Chair

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Electoral fraud: high stakes highlighted in new report

2016 saw an unprecedented number of polls with important elections held across the whole of the UK in May, a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in June, and numerous parliamentary by-elections.

We have recently published data on allegations of electoral fraud and their outcomes reported by the police during 2016 highlighting the relatively low levels of fraud and that there were no large-scale cases of proven electoral fraud.

Most importantly our report demonstrates that we can be confident that allegations of electoral fraud are taken seriously. Significant sentences will be imposed when electoral law is broken, and those responsible for electoral fraud can face jail.

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The report sets out those cases which resulted in successful prosecutions and or police cautions, including two which led to significant punishments for offenders.

  • A successfully elected local government candidate was found guilty of submitting a fraudulent electoral registration application and nomination form, and was sentenced to two months in prison and disqualified from standing for election for five years.
  • A voter at the EU referendum pleaded guilty to voting twice at the same polling station, and was given a Community Payback Order of 300 hours and disqualified from standing for election for five years.

The data shows that 2016 saw an increase in the proportion of cases which related to voting offences, including personation at polling stations, in comparison to other types of electoral offence, and at the same time a reduction in the proportion of cases which relate to electoral registration offences, with a more significant reduction in 2015 and 2016.

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We look forward to continuing to support and work with electoral administrators and police forces ahead of the polls this May and in future years, and to further address vulnerabilities in our electoral systems and the levels of public concern in this area, particularly in relation to levels of unreported fraud.

We will also work closely with the Government and other partners including the UK’s Law Commissions to identify how best to update and strengthen electoral offences, penalties and the legal challenge process, in order to ensure voter confidence in the integrity of the UK electoral system.

If you want to read the full report and see all of our other recommendations, it is available on our website.

Katy Knock
Policy Manager

Posted in Elections, Electoral Commission, Electoral Fraud, Electoral Law, Electoral Registration, EU referendum, Uncategorized, voting | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Supporting those without a doorstep of their own to register to vote

By Jess Cook, Communications Officer, The Electoral Commission

Are you an organisation that works closely with those who are homeless or living in temporary accommodation? Find out how you can support them to register to vote in the upcoming local elections on 4 May.

This May, local elections will take place in Scotland, Wales and some parts of England. These elections impact the provision of a variety of local services such as housing, homelessness prevention, public transport and social services.

The key message of our voter registration campaign is, ‘The local elections are #OnYourDoorstep’. Yet we want to ensure that those without a doorstep of their own are aware that they can register to vote with no fixed address.

Not everyone has their own doorstep, but they do have the right to vote.

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Help us ensure that those who are homeless or living in temporary accommodation know that their vote matters and they have the right to vote, just as much as anyone else.

If you’re supporting someone who is homeless or living in temporary accommodation, here’s what you need to know…

Those who don’t have a permanent home can register at an address where they spend a substantial part of their time, whether during the day or night. This could be a shelter or any place where they sleep or spend a large part of their day.

This can be done by filling in a form called a ‘Declaration of local connection’. There are two forms – one for people in Scotland and one for people who are in England or Wales.

To apply to register, you can download a Register to vote form (no fixed address) from gov.uk. Alternatively, you can get the form from your local electoral registration office.

Those living in temporary accommodation may be able to register at that address, provided that they don’t have a permanent address elsewhere. If they are unsure if this is the case they should contact their local electoral registration officer.

Find the contact details for your local electoral registration office here.

The registration deadline for England and Wales is midnight, Thursday 13 April.

The registration deadline for Scotland is midnight, Monday 17 April.

You can find more information on eligibility at yourvotematters.co.uk.

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Working in partnership with homelessness organisations means we can reach more people who are homeless or living in rented or temporary accommodation with our voter registration message.

“One of the most striking parts of working on these campaigns is seeing the confidence that registering and voting can instill in people. Often those who are homeless or moving from one temporary accommodation provider to another feel their views don’t matter; that they don’t have a voice and that all power has been stripped from them.

Being told they can register to vote and that their vote matters just as much as anyone else’s can be incredibly empowering and it can be one of the first steps to building their confidence again.” – Jonny Mitchell, The Electoral Commission

Share this blog on social media now! You can find more about registering to vote with no fixed address on yourvotematters.co.uk.

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Three areas for change before for the next referendum

Adrian Fryer, Senior Policy Advisor

The aftermath of the EU Referendum has inspired debate about a number of aspects of the poll, and recently that has included a focus on the financial controls that operated during and after the poll. As the regulator in this area, the Commission can provide direction on how the regulatory framework for future referendums can stay effective, relevant and proportionate.

After the referendum, campaigners that spent more than £10,000 were required to submit a spending and donation return to us, itemising how much they spent on campaigning activities and where their funding came from. This not only provided transparency for voters so that we can all see how money was raised and spent to secure votes, but it also allowed the Commission to consider how well the regulatory framework performed.

Here are three areas of the regulatory framework that should be changed for future UK referendums:

1) Transparency on sources of donations and loans is the new normal. Pre-poll reporting of donations and loans by campaigners has now been successfully applied twice, in the periods before both the EU and Scottish independence referendums. On both occasions, voters were able to see the sources of campaigning funding before they cast their vote. At the moment these rules only sit in the specific legislation for those polls, which is why we are recommending that they are incorporated into the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), the legislation that underpins the rules for UK-wide referendums.

2) Campaigners can hire staff to undertake campaigning activities without the cost being included in the spending limits. Although we knew this already, our campaign monitoring for the EU referendum noted media commentary that by the end of 2015 the two lead campaigners had already hired some 50 staff between them. There was also media comment that Vote Leave Ltd employed 46 professional staff working on their ‘ground campaign’ and that The In Campaign Ltd had recruited at least five members of the Conservative Party election team to take up posts in the company. That is why this gap in a large strand of referendum campaign spending should be closed.

3) Joint spending controls could usefully be clarified. Although there have been rules around joint spending for each referendum since 2011, the Government and Parliament could improve the Commission’s ability to provide specific advice and guidance to campaigners on these rules by clarifying what constitutes joint spending. This would also help to allay campaigners concerns at any future referendum.

These are just three of the regulatory controls on which which we have made recommendations in our report on the regulation of the EU Referendum; if you want to read the full report and see all of our other recommendations, it is available on our website.

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The new registration system has been holding up but more ambitious reforms are needed in the long-term.

Davide.Tiberti                                                                                                                                   Research & Evaluation Manager, Electoral Commission

1 December is an important date in the electoral calendar: revised registers are published at the end of the autumn canvass and a snapshot is taken of each register held by local authorities across the country. This data is then collected at a national level, to be used for official statistics, boundary reviews and as an indication of the effectiveness of activity undertaken by each Electoral Registration Officers (EROs).

Today we published our assessment of the December 2016 registers. The data shows an increase (+2.5%) in the size of the local government electorate since December 2015, mainly as a result of the high level of registrations made ahead of the May 2016 polls and EU referendum.

More positively, the number of attainers increased by 18% and, while this is a significant increment, the figure is still approximately 30% smaller than the number registered in February/March 2014, before the transition to the new registration system started.

Overall, our analysis confirms the findings from our study published in summer 2016 on the accuracy and completeness of the December 2015 registers, the ultimate indicators of the quality of the registers.

In that report, our final assessment on the transition to the new system of Individual Electoral Registration (IER), we found that accuracy increased by 4 percentage points during the transition (June 2014 to December 2015) while completeness remained broadly stable, with a decline of less than 1 percentage point.

The trend seen since then shows that many people registered to vote before the May 2016 polls and the EU referendum and, as a result, register entries increased by 3.9% between December 2015 and June 2016. During the autumn canvass, EROs undertook house-to-house activity, and as many redundant entries were removed, register size decreased by 1.5% since June 2016.

This trend confirms IER is a genuine ‘all-year round’ system and the December electorate is only a snapshot. Entries fluctuate throughout the year: they increase at election time as people are now more likely to register in the build-up to the polls than during the autumn canvass, but they decrease for the publication of the revised registers in December as house-to-house activity helps EROs to audit the accuracy of their register.

As a result the registers in use at elections are more likely to be complete, while the December ones are probably more accurate.

The high level of additions and deletions achieved in 2016 indicates that the quality of the registers has remained largely stable over the last year (91% accurate and 84% complete in December 2015) although this does mean that approximately 8 million people are not correctly registered.
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Also the system was significantly helped by the high-turnout polls that took place in May 2015 and 2016. In fact, there are signs that the system won’t be sustainable in the long term as without high-profile electoral events, accuracy and completeness could decline.

Many of the new IER provisions – mainly the two-stage canvass process – increased the cost of the autumn canvass and reduced its efficacy.

Moreover, the introduction of online registration has significantly changed the way people register, with almost 80% of applications submitted online and two thirds of registrations made outside the canvass period.

Pilots set up by the Cabinet Office, to test different approaches to canvassing, may provide useful insight into how to improve the efficiency of the autumn canvass; however, in the longer term we believe it is time to move away from a system where individuals have to re-register every time they move home and towards a more automatic system of registration. One specific aspect of this type of system could be the automatic registration of 16 and 17 year old attainers at the point National Insurance Numbers are assigned.

Our public opinions surveys show that public would support such a change: while 80% of people are satisfied with the registration system, satisfaction is lower among younger age groups who are the least likely to be registered (63% of 18-24s compared to 89% among over 65s).

More than half (56%) supports a more ‘direct’ form of registration – either automatically registering people when they reach voting age (36%) or updating an entry when someone moves home (20%).

Individual Electoral Registration has been in place for a year and made the registration process more secure with people having to provide their date of birth and National Insurance number when they apply to register to vote. Now, further work is needed to make electoral registration even more convenient and as cost-effective as possible. The Commission, working with the Cabinet office, will strive to further modernise the registration process so that it keeps pace with technological developments.

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