By Sir John Holmes, Chair of the Electoral Commission
Some recent media reports have suggested the Electoral Commission was calling for ‘social media trolls’ to be banned from voting in our response to the current Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) inquiry into intimidation of Parliamentary candidates . Although the resulting debate has been helpful in highlighting that current electoral law struggles to reflect 21st century realities, many of the headlines made rather more of what we said than was reasonable or justified.
We have not simply recommended that internet trolls, or anybody else, should lose their rights to vote. Nor do we seek to, or think people would want us to, become a ‘Truth Commission’, deciding what can and can’t be said in election campaigns. As some commentators were quick to point out this week, that would be a dangerous road down which to embark. I couldn’t agree more.
What we did point out was that some existing election offences already carry special consequences for those found guilty of them, including removal from the electoral register or preventing them from voting for up to five years. That this is so little understood is a good indication of just how outdated and irrelevant much of the decades or centuries old legislation around elections is today.
We went on to suggest that it would be worth considering, in looking at any new legislation, whether some similar special consequences could be a deterrent in today’s circumstances. Whether they really would be appropriate would obviously be a question for the legal experts in the first place and then for Parliament. We were not attempting to take a view either way.
Our broader position, though, is clear: the UK’s strong tradition of free elections is an essential part of a healthy democracy, and people should be able to stand for election and campaign without fear of abuse or intimidation. However, now there is evidence that this is not always the case, the fact that many offences in electoral law have not been reviewed or updated since they were first created in the 19th century does not help matters, to say the least.
As a first step, we continue to urge the UK’s governments to implement proposals made last year by the UK’s Law Commissions to make it easier for everyone to understand and comply with election laws, and for the police and prosecutors to enforce them.
Our submission highlighted the example of section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which specifies an offence of exerting undue influence on voters (for example, by threatening or using violence) – this is a particularly complex provision that the Law Commission proposes to reform. There is currently no similar offence relating to the intimidation of candidates.
It may be that there is no need for a new offence as the general criminal law might be sufficient. There are of course already laws making it a criminal offence to threaten, harass or abuse anyone, or to make racist, homophobic or sexist comments online. The CSPL should, and no doubt will, seek expert advice from police forces and prosecutors to determine whether any extra deterrent would be proportionate or useful when it comes to election candidates and campaigners.
We will watch the review with interest and I look forward to reading the final report. But whatever the Committee recommends ultimately, it is clear that modernisation of our electoral laws is overdue. While there is of course much else to keep it busy, we believe this should rank highly amongst the Government’s priorities.
You can read our full response to the Committee on our website here.