Making the electoral system more accessible for everyone

Polling station 1-02By Ailsa Irvine, Director of Electoral Administration and Guidance at the Electoral Commission

Everyone should be able to participate in elections and cast their vote with confidence, but this is not always the case. Even though they have the right to vote, some people face barriers to taking part in our democratic process.

Our electoral system needs to be made accessible to all. That is why we welcome the UK Government’s recommendations, announced today, and are keen to see improvements made as soon as possible.

The recommendations, which aim to help make elections more accessible to voters with a disability, are the product of a call for evidence from the UK Government.

Our report ‘Elections for everyone’ found that people with a disability are less likely to find elections well run. This has to change.

After the general election last year, we undertook research with voters that have disabilities to inform our report, Elections for everyone. We heard testimonials from voters with learning and physical disabilities and people living with mental illness, about their experiences of registering to vote and voting. We also spoke to a number of charities as part of our research. While most voters are happy with registering to vote and voting in the UK, not all voters with disabilities had a good experience. This must be improved.

We submitted our report as evidence and made recommendations to the UK Government, political parties, candidates, electoral administrators, carers and support workers on what they can do to make elections more accessible. We also committed to stepping up our work with everyone involved in running elections to help ensure there are no barriers to voting.

We are pleased that the UK Government has used the evidence we provided for the recommendations they have released this week. We will continue to do what we can to see the recommendations put into action. This includes strengthening the support we give to electoral administrators so that they can help people with a disability to register and to vote.

Ensuring that nobody faces barriers to voting is very important, and collaboration and cooperation will be key to overcoming the issues voters have told us about and ensuring that elections are for everyone.

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What do election teams do?

Elections teams at local authorities work hard all year round to ensure that elections are well run in their area.

Rhonda Booth is the Democratic Services Manager at South Holland District Council in Lincolnshire. In these videos, Rhonda talks about her team’s roles throughout the year.

Look out for more videos and blogs from local authority election teams soon.

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When does working together break the rules?

Promoting public confidence in the democratic process is at the heart of the Electoral Commission’s work. For the public to have confidence in the process, fairness and transparency are vital. And to provide that, we have laws that govern political and electoral finance which were set out by Parliament and are enforced by us.

These laws regulate the money received and spent by political parties and campaign groups.  A fundamental element is the spending cap; in all elections and referendums there are spending limits which parties and campaign groups cannot exceed. The cap ensures a fixed ceiling on campaign spending and is one of the ways we ensure fairness. Essentially, it means the outcome of an election or referendum cannot be bought.

In the 2016 EU referendum, groups campaigned either to remain in or leave the EU, with a number of different groups campaigning for each outcome. In the ten week period leading up to the vote, the two designated lead campaigners (one for the leave camp and one for remain) could spend up to £7 million each, while other groups had a limit of £700,000 each.

Campaign groups can work together to achieve a particular outcome, but their spending – when combined – must not exceed their individual spending limit. Where a lead campaigner is working together with other campaign groups, all the spending will count towards the lead campaigner’s total and needs to fall within the £7 million limit.

For the purposes of electoral law, working together means that there is a coordinated plan or arrangement between two or more campaigners and that the groups spend money in line with that plan in order to achieve a particular outcome.

We consider groups to be working together if they:

  • Spend money on joint advertising, leaflets or events.
  • Coordinate spending by, for example, agreeing to each focus on particular areas, arguments or voters.
  • Approve or influence each other’s spending.
  • Have discussions with other campaigners that involve decision making or coordinating plans.
  • Consult other campaigners about what should be said in each campaign and how the campaign should be organised.

One of the main reasons for these working together rules is to prevent campaigners from funnelling money into other groups when they are close to their spending limit. If we see evidence that this has happened, we will investigate campaigners in line with our enforcement policy. It’s just one of the ways we ensure that elections and referendums are free, fair and trusted by the public.

Our recent investigation into Vote Leave and BeLeave showed that Parliament’s rules on joint working had been broken. We found evidence that the money spent by BeLeave and Mr Grimes on Aggregate IQ was done so under a common plan with Vote Leave. It meant Vote Leave commissioned and paid for nearly £700,000 worth of services, despite approaching its legal spending limit.

This breach of electoral law is only now coming to light, two years after the EU referendum. The delay in uncovering this offence does not provide voters with the transparency and confidence they should expect.

We are urging the Government to make changes to electoral law that would provide the necessary transparency at a much earlier stage. We’re calling on the Government to:

  • Clarify the regulation of government spending during regulated referendum periods.
  • Compel campaigners to provide imprints on digital and online campaigning materials.
  • Ensure campaigners report more detailed spending breakdowns that differentiate between types of advertising such as online and social media promotion.

This investigation also makes it clear that the Commission needs stronger investigatory powers and higher sanctions that serve as a real deterrent to those who are prepared to break the rules that protect the legitimacy of the UK democratic process.

Posted in Elections, Electoral Law, EU referendum, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Crossed out?

A guest blog by Catriona Burness, Parliamentary and Policy Manager, RNIB Scotland

Catriona Burness, Parliamentary and Policy Manager at RNIB Scotland

Catriona Burness, Parliamentary and Policy Manager at RNIB Scotland

National Democracy Week is a good time to think about whether our democracy is accessible to all.

The right to vote independently, and in secret, is a cornerstone of our democracy. Yet blind and partially sighted people continue to face unacceptable barriers to exercising their democratic right to vote.

RNIB research on the 2017 general election found that only one in four blind and partially sighted voters felt the current system let them vote independently and in secret.

The Scottish Parliament recently gained new powers over the conduct of Scottish Parliamentary elections and electoral registration, alongside its existing devolved responsibility for local government elections.

These new powers create new opportunities and RNIB Scotland welcomed the recent Scottish Government consultation on Electoral Reform.

We reported concerns about the current Tactile Voting Device (TVD). Sometimes TVDs are not clearly available at polling stations or polling staff don’t know how they should be used. There was interest in telephone and online voting options with the caveat that the system would have be both accessible and secure. Blind and partially sighted voters also want information about candidates and party policies in good time.

These issues matter to blind and partially sighted people so we made electoral reform our fringe topic for the Scottish spring party conference season and were delighted that the Electoral Commission accepted our invitation to speak. We would be happy to work with the Scottish Government, the Electoral Commission and other interested organisations on pilot voting arrangements and have three key asks for the future:

  1. Replacement of the current TVD with a more accessible device.
  2. Guarantee all blind and partially sighted voters can get their legal right to vote without any assistance and in secret.
  3. An online and/or telephone option for blind and partially sighted people to cast their vote independently and in secret.

 Don’t cross out blind and partially sighted people!

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Urgent improvements needed to ensure transparency for voters in a digital age

By Sir John Holmes, Chair of the Electoral Commission

John head cropped

Not so long ago, the only time some people would know that an election was happening would be when a handful of leaflets came through the door, or placards appeared in a few front gardens.

The last decade has seen an explosion in the use of digital tools in political campaigning. Overall, that’s a good thing. After all, elections depend on participation and on connecting with voters.

However our rules and laws, have not kept pace with the increasing use, some may even say reliance, on digital campaigning. Today we have published a package of practical recommendations to address this. Whilst digital campaigning does not escape our current regulatory system, if taken forward, these recommendations would meaningfully increase transparency for voters.

There are two changes to the law that we want to see as soon as possible. Firstly, online materials produced by parties, candidates and campaigners must have an imprint stating who has created them. This would mean that when voters scrolling through their social media feeds see an eye-catching advert trying to secure their vote, they know who it is that’s targeting them.

Secondly, the UK’s governments should update the law so that campaigners are required to provide detailed information about how money has been spent on digital campaigns. When the law was first designed in 2000, Parliament decided that political parties and campaigners needed to report spend on ‘advertising’. Today, digital campaigning can be highly sophisticated and involve micro-targeting of voters. But the spending returns of campaigners often do not provide a clear picture of their activities. This needs to change so that everyone has to provide the same, detailed information, giving voters greater transparency over campaign spending.

In addition to legislative changes we want to see concrete action taken by the social media companies. They are making the right noises about being more hands on when it comes to what political adverts are posted on their platforms. They are clearly wrestling with this issue themselves, as we have seen from the different approaches taken prior to the recent referendum on abortion in Ireland, and we will watch with interest their actions ahead of the US midterm elections later this year. Our view is that they need to deliver on their proposals for clarity about where political adverts come from and for online databases of political adverts in time for UK elections in 2019 and 2020. If voluntary action by social media companies is insufficient, the UK’s governments should consider direct regulation.

Finally, the Electoral Commission needs further powers to enable us to enforce electoral law in the digital era. This includes a significant increase to the maximum fine that we can impose on those who break the rules. This is currently £20,000 per offence. We are concerned that we risk political parties and campaigners seeing our current fines as the cost of doing business. We need the power to impose sanctions that genuinely deter breaches of electoral law. We also need stronger powers to obtain information from parties and campaigners in real time, similar to those recently given to the Information Commissioner.

Digital report recommendations

Taking forward these changes would have an important impact on transparency in digital campaigning and on public confidence. They will not resolve all the concerns around political use of the internet. Technology and campaigning techniques will evolve further. The issues raised by this fall across the responsibilities of a range of bodies, including the Information Commissioner’s Office, as well as those of the Electoral Commission. For our part we will continue to monitor how voters are being targeted and speak out to defend their interests and ensure greater transparency in the digital age.

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Inclusion Scotland’s Access to Politics project – the journey so far

A guest blog by Ethan Young, Civic Participation Officer at Inclusion Scotland

True and effective democracy must reflect the society it serves. One in five people in Scotland identify as being disabled, yet we are drastically underrepresented in elected office. As a result, society lacks in the absence of lived experience and the breadth of expertise that disabled people can bring.

Research from our disabled interns placed within Scotland’s largest political parties showed that one of the many barriers Disabled People face in running for political office is the additional costs. Additional impairment related costs are a societal barrier that a non-disabled person wouldn’t have to face, and in the past, this is a factor that has been overlooked by those organising the processes involved. Civic participation is a human right, therefore disabled people shouldn’t be expected to fund these additional costs to equally participate, particularly given that disabled people are vastly more likely to experience poverty and additional financial pressures.

In 2016 the Scottish Government announced the creation of the Access to Elected Office Fund to cover these costs and allow disabled people to fight a campaign for public office on a more even playing field. Administered by Inclusion Scotland, the pilot project for the fund opened to disabled people running for the Local Authority Elections in May 2017.

The fund supported 44 candidates, 39 of whom became candidates and 15 were successfully elected.  The fund covered a wide range of adjustments to reduce barriers, such as; British Sign Language interpreters, transport, personal assistance support, assistive technology and other forms of communications support. The pilot project was seen widely as a major success and the Scottish Government committed to the fund being available for any Scottish by-elections and up to the next Scottish Parliament election in 2021.

Ethan Young of Inclusion Scotland with Scottish political party leaders

Ethan Young with Scottish political party leaders

The evaluation of the pilot confirmed that there was still much to do to decrease the barriers that disabled people face in becoming active in politics.  It was recommended that political parties could be doing more. We had built up a strong network of cross party disabled activists from our Access to Politics support and advice service and we invited them all to come and help us develop a Charter that would help guide political parties to fulfil their duties of inclusion. Together, we produced the Access to Politics Charter with guidance notes that all the parliamentary parties and their leaders signed up to. The challenge for us now is to make sure that political parties live up to these promises, and to spread these approaches wider to other key forms of civic and political engagement.

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When does an allegation result in an investigation?

By Bob Posner, Director of Political Finance and Regulation & Legal Counsel

Recent reports in the media have thrown a spotlight on the Electoral Commission’s investigations into the spending returns submitted by registered campaigners at the EU Referendum. As the regulator of political finance in the UK, it is proper that the decisions we take are open to scrutiny.

To date the Electoral Commission has published details of 34 investigations arising from the EU Referendum where offences have been found. They cover campaigners for both the ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ outcomes. Other investigations are ongoing. Every month, we publish information on closed cases.

When does the Electoral Commission open an investigation?

We have enforcement powers to investigate alleged breaches of the political finance rules as well as breaches we identify proactively, and powers to impose a range of sanctions.

In order to find an offence, we must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that an offence has been committed. That requires a high level of evidence and a high bar which must be met.

‘Investigation’ is a word with a specific and formal meaning for us, which sits in the context of a developing chain of stages. It is worth setting that out briefly here.

We first make initial enquiries to identify whether there may have been either an offence or a contravention of the rules; if so, then we will begin the assessment process.

Assessments are a consideration of the issues and evidence to determine whether to investigate. The conclusion of an assessment will not always lead to the opening of an investigation. We will only open an investigation where we consider that it is in the public interest, proportionate and justifies the use of our resources in this way.

We have previously prepared a briefing which provides more details on what each stage of the process entails. This is also illustrated with the following flowchart.

Investigations flow chart

What level can the Commission fine?

Recently, there has also been some attention as to what we are able to fine political parties and campaigners for breaches of the rules.

We are limited to fining a maximum of £20,000 per offence under the law. Some investigations lead to sanctions on multiple offences, resulting in a higher total fine. However, in order to find an offence, we must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that an offence has been committed. That requires a high level of evidence and a high bar which must be met. We will only find an offence if we are satisfied we have met that bar.

We want to ensure the size of monetary penalties for breaches of the political finance rules provides a proportionate deterrent. Otherwise it is possible that some parties and campaigners will see our fines as simply a cost of doing business. We therefore consider that it is time for our sanction limit of £20,000 to be substantially increased, in line with that being applied by comparable regulators.

In some recent cases where we have applied our maximum fine, we considered higher fines would have been appropriate had we the ability to levy them. It is essential that the public have confidence elections and referendums are conducted fairly and in accordance with the rules set by Parliament. That is why it is our strong view that the UK Government should increase the Commission’s maximum fines.

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