“British elections at risk from perfect storm of threats, says watchdog”

“The head of the elections watchdog has demanded urgent reform of the UK’s electoral laws and warned that the country faces a “perfect storm” of threats that could put the integrity of the system at risk.

Sir John Holmes, the chair of the Electoral Commission, also confirmed to the Guardian that the body has launched an inquiry into possible Russian interference in the EU referendum and is waiting for evidence from Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The regulator said that in order to police the electoral system properly, and hold politicians and campaigns to account, wholesale changes were necessary.

“We must avoid complacency to stop a perfect storm from forming which would put out democratic processes in peril,” he said.

In an interview with the Guardian, Holmes outlined a set of reform proposals which include:

New rules to require political campaigners to identify themselves on online advertising to combat Russian or other external interference in elections.

Increases in fines for political parties that find ways around election spending laws or fail to declare the source of their funding.

A new system requiring all voters to show photographic ID in polling stations.

A move away from only conducting votes on Thursdays and in schools or community halls. …

… “Electoral legislation is old, complicated and needs changing. There are proposals to do that. The government needs to give it legislative time,” Holmes said. …

… Following investigations into how the Conservative party moved campaigners and staff from its national headquarters to boost local party efforts in 2014 and 2015 – without properly declaring their hotel bills and expenses – the party was fined £70,000.

However, Holmes said the level of fines has to be increased to stop parties from taking such risks.

“Our ability to fine £20,000 for any single offence is not enough as an effective deterrent,” he said.

“Looking at the fines other regulators can apply, £20,000 looks fairly minimal. We think it should be bigger.”

Holmes also said the government should consider extending the use of photo identification at polling stations.

This suggestion follows allegations of widespread voting fraud, particularly around Asian communities in Birmingham, Bradford and east London.

The commission recommended in 2014 that voters should be required to prove their identities before casting a ballot, in the wake of widespread voter fraud in Tower Hamlets.

Critics of the plan say it potentially disenfranchises large numbers of people on low incomes who do not have photo ID.

Voting laws should also be reformed to allow new ways of voting, Holmes added.

“We should look at changes for a new generation of millennials who are the digital generation.

“We are not saying that we should move now to online voting because of the risks of hacking but that doesn’t mean that nothing ought to change.

“We need to ask ourselves whether voting on a Thursday in an old school building is the only way we can do this.”

The commission will release a report on Wednesday into the performance of returning officers at this year’s general election, with Holmes set to outline his proposalsin a speech to the Institute for Government later in the day.”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/dec/05/british-elections-at-risk-from-perfect-storm-of-threats-says-watchdog

CEO and Head of Audit suspended after irregularities in voting at General Election

Here in East Devon there were numerous mistakes made by our election officers but, so far, they have avoided examination or censure.

Nothing will change till electoral officers have to legally submit budgets of exactly how much money they spent (or did not spend), how much extra they were paid to do the job (average £10-20,000 per election, some got much more) AND they come under the Freedom of Information spotlight (they are currently exempted).

“Almost 1,500 voters were unable to take part in a general election contest which was won by just 30 votes, an independent inquiry has concluded.

Two senior officials in Newcastle-under-Lyme were suspended today following damning investigation into the June 8 election.

Newcastle Borough Council chief executive John Sellgren and Elizabeth Dodd, head of audit and elections, have been criticised for a number of issues by the Association of Electoral Administrators.

It found 500 postal voters were disenfranchised, nearly 1,000 potential electors were not included on the voting register and two people were able to vote who were not eligible to.

Labour’s Paul Farrelly held off a charge from Tory Owen Meredith to hold Newcastle-under-Lyme with a reduced majority.

The election cannot be re-run because complaints about the running of a poll must be made within 21 days.

But the probe concluded the result could have been different if the wrongly excluded voters had been allowed to take part.

The investigators it was ‘impossible not to question the result’ and detailed a ‘complex picture of administrative mistakes around registration and postal voting processes’.

There was an ‘inadequate performance by inexperienced and under-resourced elections office staff’, the report found.

Mr Farrelly described the election arrangements as a ‘shambles’ in the aftermath of the poll.

Mr Meredith said today: ‘It is vital lessons are learnt from this experience and that the recommendations of the report are implemented in full.
‘Urgent action must be taken by Newcastle Borough Council to ensure the credibility of upcoming council by-elections in December and the all-out elections in May.

‘Voters will be rightly horrified by the details of the report’s findings and trust in the democratic process in Newcastle-under-Lyme has been badly undermined. Urgent action is needed to restore that trust.

‘Voters have been truly let down by the Council officers and leadership and those involved must consider their positions.’

Council leader Elizabeth Shenton, said: ‘I sincerely apologise on behalf of the council for that situation but we can’t turn the clock back and right any wrong that occurred at that time.’

An Electoral Commission spokesman said: ‘Good planning and open communication are vital to ensure voters can receive the quality of service they deserve.

‘Both our guidance and this independent report recognise these factors.
‘We will now consider this report’s findings as part of our assessment of how Returning Officers performed at June’s election.

‘The Commission will continue to support and challenge the performance of the electoral services department at Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council to ensure forthcoming elections are well-run.”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5125083/1-500-people-STOPPED-taking-election.html

“Electoral Commission launches inquiry into leave campaign funding”

”Watchdog has ‘reasonable grounds to suspect offence was committed’ by Vote Leave, a student campaigner and another Eurosceptic group.

The watchdog will investigate whether Vote Leave, which was the officially designated Brexit campaign during the referendum, broke campaign finance rules.

Bob Posner, the commission’s director of political finance and regulation, said there were legitimate questions over the funding of campaigners which “risks causing harm to voters’ confidence in the referendum”.

The campaign, run by political strategist Matthew Elliott and former special adviser Dominic Cummings, will be investigated alongside Veterans for Britain and student activist Darren Grimes, now the deputy editor of the Brexit Central website, where Elliott is now editor-at-large.

The investigation has been opened after a review of previous assessments that the Electoral Commission conducted in February and March 2017, where it initially decided no further action was needed.

The commission said new information had since come to light which meant it had “reasonable grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed”.

Grimes and Veterans for Britain will be investigated as to whether he delivered an incorrect spending return in relation to a donation they received from Vote Leave and related campaign spending.

Vote Leave’s spending return will also be investigated, as well as whether the campaign breached its spending limit.

“There is significant public interest in being satisfied that the facts are known about Vote Leave’s spending on the campaign, particularly as it was a lead campaigner with a greater spending limit than any other campaigners on the ‘leave’ side,” Posner said.”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/nov/20/electoral-commission-launches-inquiry-into-leave-campaign-funding

“Dark money” in British “democracy” – a disturbing development

“… Whatever the grim necessity of these [sexual harrassment] revelations, they contribute to a sense of decline and institutional failure, and thus to an increasingly dangerous lack of trust.

But the rot in Westminster goes beyond alleged sexual harassment, to other forms of subversion that have yet to be exposed. As May prepared to go to the House of Commons for the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, there was a very significant development in the continuing but almost unnoticed investigations by a handful of journalists—most operating outside the mainstream media—into the financing of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.

After inquiries led by the independent media outlet OpenDemocracy, Britain’s Electoral Commission announced an investigation to see whether an insurance entrepreneur named Arron Banks broke the law by allegedly channeling $11 million in loans and gifts to a campaign for the U.K. to leave the E.U. (Banks, in response, tweeted, “Gosh I’m terrified.”)

The source of the money is somewhat of a mystery. OpenDemocracy, led by editor Mary Fitzgerald, carried out an analysis by Iain Campbell and Alistair Sloan of Banks’s financial affairs that allegedly showed he was not nearly as rich as he claimed, and suggested the $11 million came from elsewhere.

Some suspect the source is Russia, whose dark money has allegedly been used to fund operations of destabilization across Western democracies.

While Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Ben Bradshaw have consistently promoted the need for scrutiny on this and other possible Russian influence, Banks mocked the idea. “Allegations of Brexit being funded by the Russians . . . are complete bollocks from beginning to end,” he said. Meanwhile, his representatives tried to menace OpenDemocracy. “Make sure you get it right—it’s clearly a political hatchet job and our lawyers will take action if you get one bit wrong,” read a recent e-mail to Fitzgerald.

The Russian ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, was quoted on the Russia Today site as saying the story was “outright insulting for the British government and the British people,” which is not, if you read it carefully, a categorical denial.

There are two other big concerns about the influences on the Brexit vote, which are equally important yet still ignored by the largely Brexit-supporting press and—more shockingly—by the BBC.

In this respect, Britain differs radically from the United States, where media and institutions have taken seriously their duty to hold the Trump administration to account on possible Russian involvement in the presidential election a year ago. In the U.K., there is a kind of chill that surrounds the subject of the E.U. referendum—anyone who dares to doubt that the result was purely the “people’s will” is ignored.

The first area of doubt concerns a donation of $574,000 to the leave campaign from the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which now props up the May government in Parliament.

As OpenDemocracy has revealed, the money was channeled through a secretive group called the Constitutional Research Council (C.R.C.). Because Northern Ireland has special rules to allow donations to be made anonymously, it is impossible to discover whether the money comes from a legitimate source, as defined by British electoral law. But a hint of something unorthodox came when the Electoral Commission levied a fine of $8,000 in connection with C.R.C.’s activities.

The more worrying development, which Britain shares with the United States, is the use of big data and voter targeting on social media by the far right, which is now believed to have been very influential in the Brexit referendum.

Where to draw the line between the activities of the Russians and the far right is difficult because their interests and methods overlap. However, a recent academic study has shown that a network of Twitter bots comprising 13,493 accounts tweeted on the E.U. referendum, only to vanish the day after the vote.

It is hard to know whether these were controlled by Russia or the far right. “Putin’s agents tried to influence the U.S. election,” E.U. chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted this week. “We need to know if they interfered in the #Brexit vote too.” (If you want a very full explanation of this new peril, it is worth reading the research in full.)

Research:
http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0894439317734157

Source:
https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/11/britain-sex-dossier-scandal

“Information Commissioner finds Conservative call centre breached rules during general election”

“An update on the Conservative Party telephone call centre in Neath, Wales which Channel 4 ran an expose about earlier this year. The police investigation is still continuing, but the Information Commissioner’s investigation has now concluded.

An undercover Channel 4 News investigation raised concerns about the campaign involving calls made by Blue Telecoms, a firm in Neath, South Wales, on behalf of the Conservative Party.

These concerns prompted an ICO [Information Commissionier’s Office] investigation into the campaign’s compliance with data protection and electronic marketing law.

“We’ve found that two small sections of the written scripts used by those making the calls crossed the line from legitimate market research to unlawful direct marketing. We’ve warned the Conservative Party to get it right next time.

The issue is that the law governing marketing calls is stricter than the law governing market research calls. What the Conservatives did was follow the laws on market research but then used call scripts when went further than this and included direct marketing:

As part of our investigation, we studied scripts and call recordings and were satisfied that, in general, the questions reflected a valid market research campaign.

But we did have concerns about two sections which we believe fell outside the bounds of market research. These paragraphs referenced both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in relation to policy choices.

We’ve stopped short of formal regulatory action because the overall campaign was genuine market research. The two sections we had concerns about were not enough to trigger formal enforcement action when considered along with the campaign as a whole. In addition, the results of the survey were not saved against any individual so they could not be targeted for future marketing.

But we have been clear about what we expect in the future.

We’ve warned the party that its campaigns must be rigorously checked for questions that fall outside the bounds of market research.”

https://www.markpack.org.uk/151883/blue-telecoms-neath-conservative-call-centre/

“Have your say on changes to East Devon constituency boundary”

The East Devon constituency is set to lose part of Exeter (St Loyes) and instead gain Exe Valley in new proposals published today by the Boundary Commission. The Tiverton and Honiton constituency is unchanged.

Is our Electoral Office up to dealing with this change, given its many problems with the area it already covers?

“The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) today (Tuesday) opens its third and final consultation after revising half of its initial suggestions based on 25,000 public comments.

The body has been tasked with making independent recommendations about where the boundaries should be in order to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and ensure that the number of electors in each constituency is equal.

The initial proposal for East Devon, currently held by Sir Hugo Swire, also saw it gain Cowley, Stoke Cannon and Up Exe from Mid Devon, which remains.

Sam Hartley, secretary to the BCE, said: “We’re delighted with the huge number of comments on our initial proposals that we’ve received from members of the public, many of which contain valuable evidence about people’s local communities.

“Based on what people have said to us, we have revised more than half of our initial proposals.

“The new map of the country we publish today is, we think, close to the best set of Parliamentary constituencies we can achieve, based on the rules to which we work and the evidence given to us by local citizens.

“But we still want people to tell us what they think of this latest map before we make our final recommendations to Parliament next year. It’s so important to have your say in this fundamental democratic exercise.”

As part of the BCE’s brief. the number of constituencies in the South West must reduce from 55 to 53. By law, every constituency it proposes must contain between 71,031 and 78,507 electors, as East Devon already does, with 73,355 people registered to vote.

The constituency consists of Broadclyst, Budleigh, Clyst Valley, Exe Valley, Exmouth Brixington, Exmouth Halsdon, Exmouth Littleham, Exmouth Town, Exmouth Withycombe Raleigh, Newton Poppleford and Harpford, Ottery St. Mary Rural, Ottery St. Mary Town, Raleigh, Sidmouth Rural, Sidmouth Sidford, Sidmouth Town, Whimple, Woodbury and Lympstone, and Topsham.

People have until 11 December to comment. Visit http://www.bce2018.org.uk to respond to the consultation. If agreed by Parliament, the new constituencies will be in use at the next scheduled General Election in 2022.”

http://www.exmouthjournal.co.uk/news/have-your-say-on-changes-to-east-devon-constituency-boundary-1-5241053

Where’s Hugo and Neil? Hugo adored Boris’s speech and doesn’t think politically uneducated 16-year olds should be allowed to vote, Neil is worrying about farmers and plastic bottles

Anyone caught sight of Swire or Parish at the party conference? All we have from Hugo today are a couple of tweets on his Twitter account but they could have come from anywhere – Saudi, Maldives, Mid-Devon … and tweets on protecting farmers, plastic bottles and a desperate hope for a last-ditch meeting about Axe Valley college.

But we DO know Hugo adored Boris, as he re-tweeted:

“The most barnstorming speech of the conference so far. You’ve got to give it to him!”

and

He doesn’t like the idea of 16 year old voters unless they learn what’s best for them in school:

“Against 16 yrs old voting but might be prepared to look at it if politics and constitutional history were compulsory subjects in schools.”

So what’s different about 17 and 18 year old voters who didn’t get inculcated at school?

Looks like the education cuts and teacher shortages mean he won’t be changing his mind soon …!

And Neil?

His tweets today have been on:

Protecting farmers:

“My piece for @politicshome @housemagazinecz on food, farming & Brexit talks. @CommonsEFRA will be ensuring @DefraGovUK stands up for farmers”

Toadying to Gove on plastic bottle deposits

90% of plastic bottles are recycled in Denmark & Germany. We need a bottle deposit scheme here too. @michaelgove is right to be in favour.

and

Shutting the door after the 6th form horse has bolted at Axminster Academy which has announced closure of its 6th form:

“Urgent meeting set up with @AxeValleyCC & now writing to @JustineGreening . We must find a solution for A-Level Axe Valley pupils locally.”