Hot Take: the Russia Report and Elections

Amongst the many revelations in the Russia report, a battle is playing out for the future regulatory landscape of UK elections. The report of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) into Russian influence in the UK made specific reference to the limited powers of the Electoral Commission, which is primarily a campaign finance regulator. 

Contrary to what many may think, the Electoral Commission is not currently a holistic regulator of elections, and even in relation to campaign finance its powers are curtailed. For example, the report notes that the Electoral Commission cannot intervene to stop someone behaving illegally in a political campaign if they live outside the UK. The report also questions  whether the Electoral Commission:

“has sufficient powers to ensure the security of democratic processes where hostile state threats are involved; if it is to tackle foreign interference, then it must be given the necessary legislative powers.”

The Government addressed this directly in its response to the report. saying that it:

“notes the Committee’s comments on the Electoral Commission and we continue to consider the recommendations from the Electoral Commission itself to enhance their powers.”

This is far short of any meaningful commitment to do so. It is a typically anodyne attempt to be seen to be committing without actually doing so. Reinforcing this analysis is their statement that: 

“we must ensure that regulation is proportionate. Political parties vary considerably in size and professionalism and it is important to ensure that regulation of them is fair and proportionate so as not to undermine local democracy or discourage engagement”.

It is doubtful that many think our campaign finance system is under regulated; one of the key takeaways of the past few years is how easy it is for bad actors to slip through the cracks. 

Although the Government states in their response that they have committed to digital imprints for online political ads, Chloe Smith, the Cabinet Office minister, stated to the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee that these are only likely to come into force before the next General Election. What about the sea of political, issue, and astroturf ads that will inevitably crop up before that time? 

In addition, digital imprints have become token lip service to the idea of reform. Enhanced transparency is fine, but there needs to be stronger enforcement and deterrence available to the regulator, such as increased civil sanctions such as fines and even criminal prosecution powers. 

The Electoral Commission have issued their own statement, saying:

“To safeguard the UK’s elections from foreign interference … enhanced due diligence and risk assessment should be adapted from money laundering regulations; and that rules should be introduced to ensure campaigners cannot accept money from companies that have not made enough money in the UK to fund their donation or loan.”

ORG supports these proposed requirements. In addition, we have also suggested that the Electoral Commission find a way to incorporate nominally cheap or free datasets into its cost based regulatory framework. These datasets confer an unfair advantage to campaigns, particularly large incumbents. Until this occurs, a significant campaign asset will fly under the radar of proper regulation, giving the appearance of unfair advantage and undermining public trust. 

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which recommended the establishment of the Electoral Commission in 1998, has launched their own consultation into its powers and remit. If you want to make the case for expanding the role of the Electoral Commission, you can do so here.

ORG will be making a joint submission with our civil society allies Fairvote, arguing for routine audits of data protection practices of political campaigns, better valuations of data sets, and enhanced coordination between the Information Commissioner and Electoral Commission.

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