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

Electoral Commission chair, who is probing possible Russian meddling in 2016 Brexit vote, urges urgent reform to thwart cheats

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.

Sir John Holmes, chair of the Electoral Commission.
Sir John Holmes, chair of the Electoral Commission. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

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.

His proposals come amid heightened public concern over voting systems and the apparent ease with which foreign trolls and fraudsters can swing close votes following allegations in the US, the UK and France.

The commission announced an inquiry last month into Russian interference in the Brexit vote and has two continuing inquiries into the two main leave campaign groups, Leave.EU and Vote Leave. It faced criticisms for taking 18 months to scrutinise whether rules were complied with during the run-up to the poll on 23 June 2016.

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

Holmes, a former diplomat who has been stationed in Moscow, said the commission is speaking to digital giants about any Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum, and is waiting for any evidence, if it exists.

“The new digital methods of interfering from the outside are very different to the old ones,” he said.

“That is what we saw in the US election and the revelations there have been from Facebook and so on. We want to see what has been happening here too. But we don’t have a clear picture yet on the extent of that.

“We are talking to Google, Twitter and Facebook and others about what they know about interference there might have been from the outside.

“We only asked them relatively recently, but formally asked them within the last month. They have promised to [respond to the commission] by the middle of this month.”

He added that in future systems needed to be put in place to ensure that internet companies provided information to the commission in “real time” so they could “intervene”.

“We can’t regulate what Russians are doing, we don’t have the power to do that, but we can try to work with others to make sure there is maximum transparency,” he 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 proposals in a speech to the Institute for Government later in the day.

Contributor

Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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