Tag Archives: election law

Stephen Tierney: Towards a Fair and Democratic Process? Regulating the Referendum on Scottish Independence

stierneyThe referendum on independence is still a year away and already attention is focused on major substantive issues such as economic relations between an independent Scotland and the United Kingdom, and the ease or difficulty with which an independent Scotland would achieve membership of the European Union. What is often overlooked is that the credibility of the outcome of the vote on 18 September 2014, whatever that might be, will depend greatly on the legitimacy of the referendum process itself.

Already the procedural rules for the referendum have been taking shape, with one bill now enacted and the other before the Scottish Parliament. The franchise rules for the referendum are set out in the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Act (‘the Franchise Act’), introduced into the Scottish Parliament on 11 March, and enacted on 7 August. This Bill required to pass through the Scottish Parliament quickly to facilitate the registration of voters, particularly new voters since the franchise for the referendum is extended to 16 and 17 year olds. The Scottish Independence Referendum Bill (‘the Referendum Bill’) was introduced into the Parliament on 21 March 2013 and is expected to be passed in November.

The legislation was preceded by the Edinburgh Agreement signed by the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments on 15 October 2012. This, and the associated ‘memorandum of agreement’, provided that the referendum should have a clear legal base; be legislated for by the Scottish Parliament; be conducted so as to command the confidence of parliaments, governments and people; and deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect. This has been formalised by an Order in Council (per section 30 Scotland Act 1998) which devolves to the Scottish Parliament the competence to legislate for a referendum on independence which must be held before the end of 2014 (Order in Council, para 3).

In this post I will summarise some of the main points to come out of this legislation: the franchise rules for the referendum, the question that will be asked, the role for the Electoral Commission, the Referendum Period, and the parameters for other important process issues, in particular, the funding and expenditure rules.

Franchise

The general franchise demarcation set out in the Franchise Act is uncontroversial. The franchise for the referendum is to be the same as for Scottish Parliament elections and local government elections (Franchise Act, section 2), mirroring the franchise used in the Scottish devolution referendum in 1997. One consequence is that EU citizens who are resident in Scotland will be able to vote in the independence referendum.

One major difference from the 1997 franchise, however, is the provision in the Franchise Act extending the vote to those aged 16 and 17 (Franchise Act, section 2(1)(a)). This is a radical departure; never before have people under the age of 18 been entitled to vote in a major British election or referendum (the age of 18 as the threshold for UK elections is set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983, section 1(d)). Another notable provision of the Franchise Act excludes convicted persons from voting in the referendum if they are detained in a penal institution (Franchise Act, Section 3). This exclusion will apply even if the current ban on prisoners voting is modified in relation to elections prior to the date of the referendum. This has been a controversial topic in the United Kingdom ever since the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the blanket ban on prisoner voting in UK elections violated Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Hirst v the United Kingdom (No 2) [2005] ECHR 681). It would seem, however, that section 3 of the Franchise Act does not violate the Convention since A3P1 guarantees ‘the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature’ (emphasis added), which is generally taken to refer exclusively to parliamentary elections and to exclude referendums.

 The Question

The Referendum Bill contains a raft of important provisions which, inter alia, frame the question to be put to voters. The question as originally proposed by the Scottish Government has been changed. The formulation set out in the White Paper ‘Your Scotland, Your Referendum’, published in January 2012, was: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ Following conclusion of the Edinburgh Agreement, the Scottish Government decided to send its proposed question for review to the Electoral Commission. The Commission in its subsequent report took issue with the phrase ‘do you agree’, suggesting it could lead people to vote Yes. It therefore suggested a change to the question. This has been accepted by the Scottish Government and the new question is now contained in the Referendum Bill: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ (Referendum Bill, section 1(2)).

Electoral Commission

The Referendum Bill also formalises a more general oversight role for the Electoral Commission. Among a number of statutory duties the Commission is given the task of promoting public awareness and understanding in Scotland about the referendum, the referendum question, and voting in the referendum (Referendum Bill, section 21). This is likely to be a challenging role, particularly in explaining the referendum question. There is already a heated debate between the UK and Scottish Governments as to what ‘independence’ will mean for Scotland. It is hard to see how the Electoral Commission can attempt to produce an objective account of a number of highly technical and fiercely contested issues, concerning not only international relations but also defence, economic relations, the question of a currency union, the disentanglement of the welfare state, national debt etc., particularly when so many features of the post-referendum landscape would be contingent upon negotiations between the two governments in the event of a majority Yes vote. And indeed in evidence to the Committee in May John McCormick, the Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, said that the Commission would ‘not seek to explain to voters what independence means’ but would offer information ‘aimed at ensuring that all eligible electors are registered and know how to cast their vote.’

Referendum Period

The Referendum Bill sets a regulated period of 16 weeks before the referendum within which the statutory regime of campaign regulation will take effect, including for example, limits on campaign expenditure (Referendum Bill, Schedule 4, Part 3). Since the referendum will still be the best part of a year away by the time the Referendum Bill is passed, this leaves a lengthy period within which the two main referendum campaigns will not be subject to these detailed provisions. Another set of regulations introduce what is known as a ‘purdah’ period. This is common in UK elections. Under PPERA there is to be no promotional activity by government, local authorities or public bodies during the 28 day ‘relevant period’ prior to an election poll. This provision is largely replicated in the Referendum Bill (section 10 and Schedule 4, para 25) in relation to the Scottish Government and a wide range of other public bodies which must not engage in promotional activity in the four weeks prior to the referendum. The UK Government also committed to be bound by equivalent restrictions in the Edinburgh Agreement (for comment on this by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon see Scottish Parliament Referendum (Scotland) Bill Committee, 13 June 2013, Official Report, cols 554 and 560).

Funding and Spending Rules

Efforts are made within the Referendum Bill to ensure equality of arms between the two campaign groups. Each side in the campaign can apply to the Electoral Commission to be appointed as one of two ‘Designated Organisations’, and both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaign groups have intimated their respective intention to do so. One notable feature of the Referendum Bill is that there is to be no public funding for any designated organisation. This is a conscious departure from PPERA which does offer public funding for referendums. The decision not to fund the 2014 referendum was a political one taken by the Scottish Government. It has not resulted in any significant disagreement, presumably because both campaigns expect to be amply funded by private donors.

The Edinburgh Agreement (paras 24-29) also covers funding and expenditure issues. Building on this, the Referendum Bill contains detailed provisions on a range of funding issues. A ‘Campaign Rules’ provision creates a regulatory regime through which funding, spending and reporting will be administered (section 10 and Schedule 4). This is generally in line with standard PPERA rules. A ‘Control of Donations’ provision (Schedule 4, Part 5) indicates what types of donations are allowed and what constitutes a ‘permissible donor’ (Schedule 4, para 1(2)). Under these provisions an application must be made for this status. There are also reporting requirements which mean that reports on donations received will require to be prepared every four  weeks during the referendum period (Schedule 4, para 41). These rules will all be overseen by the Electoral Commission.

Spending Limits

Within the Referendum Bill there are four categories of actor entitled to spend money during the campaign period: Designated Organisations (which can each spend up to £1,500,000) (Schedule 4, para 18(1)); political parties as ‘permitted participants’ (see below) (Schedule 4, para 18(1)); other ‘permitted participants’ who may spend up to £150,000 (Schedule 4, para 18(1)); and any other participants spending less than £10,000, which means they do not require to register as permitted participants.

Political parties as ‘permitted participants’  have a spending limit of either £3,000,000 multiplied by their percentage share of the vote in the Scottish Parliament election of 2011, or £150,000 (whichever is greater). By this formula the spending limits for political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament is as follows:

Scottish National Party: £1,344,000
Scottish Labour Party: £834,000
Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party: £396,000
Scottish Liberal Democrats: £201,000
Scottish Green Party: £150,000

The Referendum Bill also defines ‘campaign expenses’. These include campaign broadcasts, advertising, material addressed to voters, market research or canvassing, press conferences or media relations, transport, rallies, public meetings or other events. This also extends to notional expenses such as use of/sum of property, services or facilities etc. ( Schedule 4, paras 9 &10). There are also detailed rules on reporting of expenditure (Referendum Bill, Schedule 4, paras. 20-24. The Electoral Commission has a power to issue guidance on the different kinds of expenses that qualify as campaign expenses: Schedule 4, para 10).

It seems that these rules will lead to a generally level playing field in terms of expenditure within the Regulatory Period. For example, the total spending limit for the two pro-independence parties (SNP and Greens) is almost equal to that for the three unionist parties – Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. But given that these spending limits only apply in the 16 weeks before the referendum, this does leave the possibility of spending differentials between the two campaigns before this period begins. It should be observed, however, that these rules reflect the spending limits recommended by the independent Electoral Commission.

Finally, the Referendum Bill provides for civil sanctions (Schedule 6) and criminal offences (Schedule 7) in relation to various categories of electoral malpractice; and the Electoral Commission is given an important role in enforcing the former.

The Referendum Bill is approaching the end of its Stage 1 process and still has some way to go in its passage through the Scottish Parliament. But it is an instrument which, in building upon the Edinburgh Agreement principles, should set the conditions for a fair, lawful and democratic referendum. A significant task for the Electoral Commission, and for academic and other observers over the next year, will be to monitor how well the legislation in the Referendum Bill and Franchise Act is implemented and how responsibly all of those engaged in referendum campaigning behave. Compliance with the letter and the spirit of the legislation will be essential if the voting public is to have the best chance to participate in the referendum in an informed way and if the process as a whole is to live up to the aspirations of the Edinburgh Agreement.

Stephen Tierney is Professor of Constitutional Theory and Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law, University of Edinburgh. The author also acts as Constitutional Adviser to the Scottish Parliament Referendum Bill Committee. This paper is written in a personal capacity.

Suggested citation: S.Tierney, ‘Towards a Fair and Democratic Process? Regulating the Referendum on Scottish Independence.’  (27th August 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

1 Comment

Filed under Scotland

Jacob Rowbottom: Campaign Lies and the First Amendment

It is now a tradition that during an America presidential election year, commentators shall declare the campaigns to be the ‘nastiest’ and ‘dirtiest’ ever. It is difficult to know whether such a claim is true of the 2012 election, as tough campaigning has a long history in the USA (as a NY Times article from last month explains). There is, however, no doubt that candidates at all levels of the American system have engaged in and been subject to some fierce attack messages (a recent Campaigns and Elections article provides some notable examples). Yet negative messages do not breach campaign ethics. Strong criticism of parties and candidates is part of the cut and thrust of elections. The real problem arises when electoral messages turn out to be false – and a quick viewing of websites such as FactCheck.org show the doubts about the truth of some campaign messages in the current American election.

Given the seemingly free exchange of robust (and sometimes brutal) campaign communications, it may surprise some readers that several US states have laws that prohibit certain false statements about candidates during an election campaign. These are the American equivalents of British law that led to Phil Woolas being forced out of his seat following the 2010 general election (s.106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983). For example, the key state of Ohio has laws prohibiting knowingly or recklessly false statements being published about a candidate. It employs a combination of administrative remedies (through an Election Commission finding or a fine) and criminal penalties (as a last resort). Despite the presence of such a law, a recent article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer casts doubt on the effectiveness of these measures.  Much the same can be said about its British counterpart.

A bigger constitutional question is whether such laws are consistent with the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. This is something I considered briefly in an article for OJLS published over the summer. On my reading, the US case law was ambiguous. The US Supreme Court has not addressed the issue directly. Previous statements from the Supreme Court point in different directions, with some emphasizing the importance of political expression and others stressing that knowingly false statements have no value. Since my article was finalized, the Supreme Court’s decision in June in US v Alvarez sheds more light on this issue and drops some hints as to how the Court might approach false campaign statement laws.

Alvarez did not concern campaign communications, but a statute called the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a criminal offence to falsely claim to have been awarded ‘any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States’. The issue for the Court was whether the First Amendment protected false statements. A majority of the court decided that while lies can be prohibited in some circumstances, falsity alone does not preclude First Amendment protection. In his plurality opinion, Justice Kennedy thought the system of free speech is self-correcting and that the normal ‘remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true.’ Applying strict scrutiny, he found the Stolen Valor Act to be unconstitutional. In a concurring opinion, Justice Breyer reached the same conclusion, but applied a less intense standard of intermediate scrutiny.

The government relied on a number of cases, including New York Times v Sullivan (1964) to support the Stolen Valor Act. The ruling in Sullivan famously protects those making statements about public figures from defamation actions. However, the Sullivan ruling still allows defamation actions to be brought when malicious (ie knowingly or recklessly false) defamatory statements are made about public figures. One reading of Sullivan is therefore that knowingly or recklessly false statements can be restricted – even on political matters – without raising First Amendment concerns. The argument is of interest as many of the American campaign speech laws have been drafted to conform to this reading of Sullivan, prohibiting only those false statements about candidates that are made with ‘actual malice’.

The Supreme Court in Alvarez, however, rejected this reading. The basic thrust of Justice Kennedy’s reasoning is that defamatory statements normally fall outside the First Amendment. The public figure defence in Sullivan is a way of softening that exclusion to give breathing space for political speech. On this view, Sullivan merely deprives the malicious speaker of the public figure defence and in such cases restores the normal position that defamatory statements fall outside the First Amendment. While I am still thinking through the implications of this reasoning, it means that the Supreme Court now treats the Sullivan rule on malicious statements as specific to defamation and does not deal with false statements more generally.

Alvarez also provides some indication of how campaign speech laws might be treated. In a recent analysis of the decision, Prof Rick Hasen, a leading US election lawyer, notes that there is ‘unanimous skepticism of laws targeting false speech about issues of public concern.’ For example, Justice Breyer, in a concurring opinion, said that controls on ‘false statements about philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, the arts, and the like’ would risk suppressing true as well as false statements, and that such controls could call for strict scrutiny. He went on to say:

‘In the political arena a false statement is more likely to make a behavioral difference (say, by leading the listeners to vote for the speaker) but at the same time criminal prosecution is particularly dangerous (say, by radically changing a potential election result) and consequently can more easily result in censorship of speakers and their ideas.’

Breyer’s remarks suggest that it would be difficult to tailor a control on false campaign speech in a way that would not chill some true expression and that such controls could also be open to abuse by prosecutors and adjudicators.

Justice Alito offered a dissenting opinion, stating ‘false statements of fact merit no First Amendment protection in their own right’. While he thought the Stolen Valor Act should be upheld, he too hinted that laws prohibiting false campaign speech might fall foul of the First Amendment. Even though false statements have no intrinsic value, Alito reasoned that this should not be the end of the question. Restrictions on false statements of fact can still have a chilling effect. For this reason, restrictions on certain types of false speech may still be afforded some ‘instrumental constitutional protection’. Like Breyer, Alito thought that in relation to ‘philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, the arts, and other matters of public concern’ it would be ‘perilous to permit the state to be the arbiter of truth.’ The dissenters also argued that such a power ‘opens the door for the state to use its power for political ends’.

These statements are only indications of where the Court might go and do not address the campaign speech issue directly. These initial sentiments of the US Supreme Court stand in contrast to the position of the British courts following Woolas, which concerned the British law on false electoral statements. In that case, Thomas LJ stated that Article 10 of the European Convention ‘does not extend to a right to be dishonest and tell lies’ and that this is applies to lies about the ‘political position of a candidate’ as well as those about a candidate’s ‘personal character’. Thomas LJ argued that dishonest statements in an election campaign ‘are aimed at the destruction of the rights of the public to free elections’ and thereby relied on Article 17 to exclude any protection under the European Convention. The British approach appears to give the government a free hand in restricting dishonest campaign messages.

Ultimately, the issue is a difficult one and the British and the emerging American approaches show two different paths. My feelings on this are mixed, as I think the campaign lies do pose a substantial harm to the electoral process and in some cases it cannot be remedied with ‘more speech’. At the same time, I have serious reservations about allowing courts or agencies to determine the truth of campaign messages. In any event, I think false statement laws have limited effect and can only ever be enforced in a small number of cases.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the USA. Prof Hasen concludes in his paper that following Alvarez ‘we are likely to see more false campaign speech in elections, including some brazen lies.’ Just as Citizens United unleashed new channels for money to enter politics, Alvarez could open the door for more lies to enter campaign debate. Yet you may ask whether protecting dishonest campaign speech would really make such a difference. Given the limited enforcement of the existing state laws, the removal of the campaign speech laws may not in practice be such a great change from the status quo. If campaigners under the current rules feel free to mislead and lie, what difference will it make if those laws are struck down? The significant development would be the recognition of constitutional right to tell lies in elections, which might be taken as a signal for people to eschew certain campaign ethics. If that happens, then maybe the next election cycle really will be nastiest and dirtiest ever.

Jacob Rowbottom is a Fellow of University College, Oxford.

Suggested citation: J. Rowbottom, ‘Campaign Lies and the First Amendment’  UK Const. L. Blog (30th October 2012) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

2 Comments

Filed under Comparative law, UK Parliament

Law Commission: Consultation on Elections and Referendums

Bringing electoral law up to date

In a consultation opening today, the Law Commission is asking which of the rules governing elections and referendums should be reviewed as part of its electoral law reform project. Electoral law in the UK is spread across 25 major statutes. It has become increasingly complex and fragmented and, according to the Commission, needs to be simplified, modernised and rationalised in order to benefit the electorate, administrators, and candidates.

The last century has seen a steady increase in the numbers and types of election. Today, we may be asked to vote – at the same time – for a range of representatives. We could be casting votes for our local mayor, police and crime commissioner and councillors at the same time we are selecting our MP, MSP or Northern Ireland, Welsh or London AMs and our MEPs. Each of these election types comes with its own set of rules and systems, and combining them into one election event introduces yet more layers of electoral laws.

Public confidence in electoral administration needs to be reinforced. The Law Commission’s consultation is asking all those involved in setting up, managing, participating and voting in elections to tell them which areas of the legislative framework are not working and should be reviewed.

Frances Patterson QC, Law Commissioner, says:

“Elections are the principal mechanism by which citizens exercise their democratic rights. The price we pay as a democracy when the electoral process loses credibility is high and potentially catastrophic. An electorate that has no confidence in the process by which its democratic representatives are chosen may ultimately give no credence to the choices that are made. 

“It is clear that electoral law is in need of reform. Inconsistencies and ambiguities risk undermining the credibility of our electoral process; the sheer volume, fragmentation, and complexity of rules compound that risk. We are asking the questions, where in this vast and complex legislative framework do the problems lie? And should that framework be simplified and rationalised?”

The Commission expects that, with agreement from Government, responses to its consultation will lead to a detailed examination of specific aspects of electoral law and proposals for reform that will also be opened for consultation following the 2014 elections. The Commission hopes that the proposals and consultation will be UK wide, being conducted in partnership with the Scottish and Northern Ireland Law Commissions and in collaboration with the Welsh Assembly Government.

The Commission’s consultation paper, “Electoral Law in the United Kingdom”, and information on how to respond are available on http://www.lawcom.gov.uk

Leave a comment

Filed under Constitutional reform

Jacob Rowbottom: Do electoral attack sites need taming?

Much is made of the democratising effect of the internet. However, the freedom to communicate online has costs, which are sometimes felt by the politicians that are the subject of internet communications. These costs were highlighted by the Labour MP, Mike Gapes who presented a Ten Minute Rule Motion on Tuesday, calling for greater regulations on websites that make negative attacks on candidates during election campaigns. While there are already some controls on third party activities in elections, Mr Gapes told the House of Commons that these rules are not working:

“An enormous number of groups, local and national, do not register, and some organisations have websites. During the last general election, a group called the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK targeted Labour MPs and candidates, with downloadable leaflets and other material attacking people whom they were trying to get out of Parliament. It was able to put out tens of thousands of leaflets without any restriction-negative material arguing against sitting Members of Parliament and encouraging people to vote for other candidates. In some constituencies where the result changed, Liberal Democrats or other people were elected having been beneficiaries of this negative campaigning. We should tighten up the rules to regulate what can be put on the internet. We could also prosecute people who have downloadable material that does not have imprints. We need to ask the Electoral Commission to take these matters far more seriously, and that is why I am proposing this Bill.”

From this statement, it is not entirely clear whether Mr Gapes is complaining about gaps in the law or that the current law is not being enforced properly. However, there are several areas of concern relating to attack websites.

The first is the anonymity of the attack sites, which Mr Gapes raises when referring to material without ‘imprints’ (ie details of the printer and promoter on the material). Anonymity can be a problem for the reader of the website, as not knowing the source of the negative statement means visitors have less means to assess the credibility of the claims being made. The audience will not know whether the anonymous author has inside knowledge about the politician or is merely a front organisation with a vested interest. Of course, anonymous sources are commonly used in the mainstream media, but at least there an established media entity will vouch for the credibility of the information being published. From the perspective of the politician being attacked, the problem of anonymity lies in not knowing to whom to address the rebuttal (or in other cases, who to sue for a defamatory statement).

In the current election laws, there are already controls on printed leaflets, requiring the identity of the printer and promoter to be included in any election material. While the Electoral Commission advises people to include such details on internet material, this is not a legal requirement. The imprint requirement applies only to printed material. There are statutory powers to extend the imprint requirements beyond printed materials and to web-based materials, but so far these powers have not been used. One of the problems lies in deciding how these requirements could apply to the various types of digital communication – for example a text message or tweet could not include such full disclosure in the text itself. Alterative transparency requirements (if any are needed) will need to be formulated for internet communications.

Whether anonymity is a problem is open to debate. To many, the ability to speak anonymously is regarded as a strength of internet communications. However, whether there is true anonymity online is questionable – there are various ways (including court orders) in which it is possible to discover the identity of a speaker on a website or blog. These means often require either some technical skill or resources. To go further and require websites to disclose the identity of person speaking or moderating would open this information up to all the audience. The danger with such a requirement lies in creating a chilling effect on some speakers (for example, those who fear the consequences of making their political views public), or at the very least may impose a bureaucratic hurdle which may discourage some election speech (a point made by Robert Halfon MP in his reply to the House of Commons).

A second problem raised by Mr Gapes’ statement is that the material published online is often negative. However, there is nothing wrong with a negative attack in itself.  If a negative statement is true and relevant to the election campaign, then it can provide valuable information to voters. The problem is that people may be more willing to make unfounded attacks on a politician if they remain anonymous and thereby unlikely to be held accountable for the statements. Some transparency may discourage more reckless claims being made online and would require the speaker to stand by his statement (the argument along these lines being that a chilling effect is not always a bad thing, as long as it chills the right type of speech).

Aside from the two points above, there is also a broader issue of what third parties should be forced to disclose. People may be interested to know who is financing a website. Under the current legislation, third parties spending over a certain amount on election material are required to register with the Electoral Commission. Despite an increasing number of political websites commenting on election issues, most did not register as third parties in the 2010 General Election (an exception being the campaign group 38 Degrees). As I told the Committee on Standards in Public Life last year, it is not clear why websites are not being caught by the election regulations. In many cases, this will be because the costs of running the website do not meet the threshold for registering as a third party. However, in the case of larger scale websites that employ staff, that threshold is more likely to be met. This is a matter that requires further investigation.

Third party activities during elections have long been the subject of regulations, but it is not clear at present how these controls are or should be applied to internet communications. I can certainly see hazards in some regulatory strategies and would not want to see any heavy-handed controls.  The complexities of the issue provide a strong incentive to ignore these questions. However, the role of third party activities online needs to be considered if elections are to remain fair, and Mike Gapes’ contribution on Tuesday is important in acknowledging the potential problems attack sites can pose.

Jacob Rowbottom is a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and author of Democracy Distorted.

2 Comments

Filed under UK Parliament