Online Harms – how does the UK government plan to address election interference?

The UK government has set out a plan to give media regulator Ofcom more powers to regulate internet companies. The talk is about forcing platforms to hold a ‘duty of care’ for their users. We don’t yet know many of the details, and the term online harms covers a vast swathe of activities from child protection to terrorism, but we also know that the government has previously viewed interference with elections as one of the online harms that needs addressing.

So what is an online harm when it comes to electoral integrity and how could internet companies police such threats?

The first is interference with the electoral process itself. In this case, the UK’s adherence to paper and pencil voting and counts taking place in a single venue for each constituency actually helps. If we used electronic voting machines, or voted via the internet, then these might be open to manipulation. The only instance where the process is open to such manipulation is when scanning is used to count the votes in elections such as the mayor of London. So there needs to be confidence that the scanners and their software is secure and accurate and consideration needs to be given to having at least a sample of the paper ballots hand counted by hand.

The next key area is disinformation (or fake news). Should platforms like Facebook ensure that such posts are not altering the course of the election? 

To date the government has been keen to stress that it should be up to voters to decide for themselves what is truthful and what is not when it comes to electoral propoganda. Political adverts are exempt from the ‘legal, decent and honest’ requirements of, say, washing powder adverts. So politicians can say whatever they want on social media or their own websites. (Of course, the government could change their minds and require truthfulness, but this would mean establishing some sort of board to decide on truthfulness and a whole host of other issues.)

Just because the government doesn’t require it doesn’t stop the platforms having their own rules governing political speech. Facebook is the most open, allowing politicians to do and say what they want. They exempt political adverts from fact-checking and have said they are in favour of free speech and allowing voters to decide what is true or not. At the other end of the scale, Twitter has banned political adverts but still allows politicians to say whatever they want in organic tweets. And in the middle comes Google which has restricted the targeting allowed for adverts, but still allows things such as a banner advert which directed users to a site called labourmanifesto.co.uk – which turned out to be a Conservative party advert.

Platform policies are pretty much worldwide. So the UK government’s new initiative will throw down a gauntlet in the shape of a challenge to create UK service conditions reflective purely of UK laws. That has happened in other countries, but the platforms (and US government) have complained bitterly. Such laws have yet to be fully tested in the courts so we wait to see how the platforms will react.

Where the UK government may choose to act would be in the areas of user identification and financial probity. Electoral participation in the UK is limited to UK individuals and companies, and there are limits to the amount that can be spent. So it may be that the government chooses to impose new burdens on internet companies to ensure that only legal contributions can be made and that those responsible for adverts are clearly identifiable. This would take the form of clear ‘imprints’ and an open library to see who has produced what and at what cost.

Finally there is the issue of foreign interference. With participation limited to UK individuals and companies, what action might be proposed to prevent interference from those based overseas – either to seek to advantage a particular candidate or just to create disinformation and confusion?

To this end, crossbench peer Lord Cromwell (*) has tabled a question in the House of Lords:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, given the “real danger that hostile actors use online disinformation to undermine” the UK’s “democratic values and principles” outlined in their Online Harms White Paper, published in April 2019, what steps they plan to take to empower the proposed independent regulator to require online platforms to take down such material that may be perceived to have an impact on an electoral contest; and what guidance they plan to give to that regulator about how any such decision should be reached.

Of course the government may think election interference should be the responsibility of another body, not Ofcom. Or they may think that there should be no regulation or protection in this area – although that would contradict their main decision and they would have to explain why. We await the further details.

 

* Disclosure – Lord Cromwell manages many UK observer secondments to OSCE/ODIHR international election observation missions on behalf of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and has employed me in this role.

First Facebook election advert ban may not be as clear as it seems

The first example of a political Facebook advert being banned in the UK has now happened – or at least the first example that got widespread publicity. But I would suggest that all might not be as straightforward as it first appears.

The advert in question came from an organisation called the ‘Fair Tax campaign’. It was badged as ‘sponsored’ and contained the claim that Labour’s tax plans would costs everyone an extra £214 per month. It was taken down by Facebook after a number of complaints to the BBC advert watch initiative headed by Rory Cellan-Jones. 

However, the reason for the advert being taken down is that it didn’t comply with Facebook’s rules which require political advertisers to register and include ‘imprint’ information (noting who is responsible and their contact details). In addition to transparency, this would ensure the advert would go into the platform’s political ads library. It was not taken down for breaching the rule about false claims which can only be triggered by a third-party fact-checking organisation commissioned by Facebook – in the UK’s case FullFact.org. So Facebook have stated that if the advertiser registers it can go back up again (at least until FullFact takes a look at it and thinks differently).

Because the complaints were made to the BBC, they have received a lot of publicity. The advert itself has been reproduced, for free, on the BBC website and the claims have reached a lot of people who would not have seen them either organically or via payment on Facebook. Of course the BBC is keen to promote its new project and so this sort of reportage was to be expected.

It would have been open to the complainants to go directly to Facebook who would, presumably, have taken the same action without the attendant publicity.

Was this in any way deliberate? If not it certainly had a lot of benefits for the former 10 Downing Street staffer who is behind the ad.

Voter Suppression and poll failures – the latest government election efforts

Two significant bits of news as regards elections in the UK have emerged in the last few days:

Voter ID requirement would be suppression effort

First, the government has said that it wants to press ahead with plans to require voters to take photo identity documents to the polling station. This measure, although a common requirement in countries with ID cards, has been dubbed an attempt at voter suppression in the UK where the most likely to be hit would be young people, the elderly and people from minority communities.

Two rounds of pilots have taken place in local council elections where voters were required to bring either photo ID or poll cards in order to be allowed to vote. In the most recent trial in five local authorities, more than 750 people were turned away and did not return with the correct documents although many others did so after initially being refused. In contrast, during the 2015 elections (which included a general election) there 665 complaints of electoral fraud but most related to nominations or postal voting. There were 26 cases reported of ‘personation’ at a polling station, but none resulted in convictions. A total of around 51.4 million ballots cast.

But if most other countries require ID, why shouldn’t the UK? 

First, because we don’t have a national identity card system. (That’s a whole separate civil liberties argument). So we have to rely on forms of identity that we do have – passports and driving licences. But only about 78% of the adult population have passports and only about 80% have driving licenses. These raw statistics would suggest that 96% of the population would have one or the other, but actually if you don’t have a passport then you are much less likely to have a driving licence. So the real figure is about 11% – one in nine of the population. And these people are statistically more likely to be much younger, not in work or from minority populations – in other words, statiustically less likely to be Conservative voters.

In order to get around the ‘No-ID’ problem, the government would have to issue a special form of voting ID card. With a potential 5.6 million to issue, this would be an expensive and complex business (it would have to be free to the applicant) and very difficult to promote to the audiences who need to see and understand the message.

All this begins to look very similar to efforts in the United States to suppress the likely support for opposition parties. 

I used to work for the Electoral Reform Society. As part of that work I highlighted the much more real danger of electoral fraud connected with postal votes and this work resulted in significant changes to the law to try to stamp this out. Even with those changes I would still regard postal voting as a much greater risk of fraud than in-person voting. In response to the new government proposals, the ERS have said:

“Ministers should focus on combating the real threats to our democracy – dark ads, disinformation and dodgy donations – rather than suppressing voters’ rights.”

Electoral Commission criticises government over Euro-poll failures

Second, the Electoral Commission has blamed the government for the failures of the European Parliamentary elections when thousands of eligible voters were denied the chance to cast their ballot. The Commission has blamed “outdated laws” and “the failure by the government to act on recommendations made four years ago”.

The Commission also said voter confidence in the election was lower than in any other recent polls, denting the democratic contract with the public.

Thousands of EU citizens who were on the electoral roll were turned away as they had not been informed they also had to fill in a form confirming they would be exercising their vote in the UK rather than in their country of origin. There were a number of reports of councils giving misleading information to voters who made enquiries and of authorities who failed to process returned forms properly.

Many UK citizens living overseas complained that they did not receive their ballot papers in time to have their vote count.

Rory Stewart makes things ten times more complicated for voters in London Mayor ballot

Rory Stewart is running for London Mayor as an independent. That makes voters’ choices ten times harder and could result in carnage in the election next May.

That Stewart would be forced to abandon his current seat of Penrith and the Border in Cumbria was pretty clear. He had been deprived of the Conservative whip by Boris Johnson (although he remained a member of the party) and so would not be able to re-stand as a Conservative in the seat he has represented for ten years. The seat had previously been represented by David Maclean and Willie Whitelaw and is unlikely to be anything other than Tory after the next election. Some suggested he might seek revenge by standing against Boris Johnson, but Stewart has chosen instead to throw his hat into the ring for the London mayoralty, a position formerly held by the PM.

So why does this make things especially difficult?

The problem is that the London mayor is elected by a voting system known as the Supplementary Vote (SV), often described as the worst of all worlds.

Using SV, voters are faced with a ballot paper which asks them to mark an X for their first choice in one column and a second X in a second column for their second choice. At the count, the first choice votes are added up and if a single candidate has more than 50% of the votes cast then they win. But if they don’t then the top two vote getters are put through to the second round and the second choice votes on the ballots cast for all the other candidates are examined and any votes for either of the top two are added to their total. The candidate with the most votes after this is done is declared the winner.

Here’s the problem. If you want to ensure that your vote counts then you need to know (or guess) which two candidates will make it through to the second round (there will surely be a second round in London). You can then pick which of those two candidates you prefer (or least hate). The good news is that you can safely cast your first preference for whoever you genuinely like on the full ballot list, even if you suspect they have no real chance of winning. The bad news is that everything after that is guesswork.

So who will make it through to the second round? At the moment I wouldn’t like to guess. Clearly the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, has a good shot. He is the Labour candidate in what is historically a Labour city. But remember that in the first London mayoral election the official Labour candidate, Frank Dobson, was not in the top two. So it can happen. And there are now three other strong candidates. Shaun Bailey is the Conservative candidate, Siobhan Benita is standing for the Lib Dems (who topped the poll in London in the European elections) and now Rory Stewart. Add in the Green Party and Brexit Party who have smaller but significant levels of support as well as countless fringe and independent voices and it all becomes very complicated.

Your first choice is not going to be a wasted vote but your second choice, and therefore your ballot as a whole, could well be.

Here’s how it works for my particular case:

I have a strong preference for the Lib Dems. Of the rest, I have some sympathy for the Green Party and I like Rory Stewart despite him being in favour of Brexit. I would prefer Sadiq Khan to Shaun Bailey. So I will cast my first preference for Siobhan Benita. If she does not come in the top two then I want my vote still to make a difference. If I cast my second preference for the Green candidate it will likely be wasted. I am willing to bet that Sadiq Khan will be in the top two but who will it be against. If it is Shaun Bailey then I would cast my second vote for Khan. If it is Stewart then he would get my choice rather than the Labour candidate.

Add in the fact that many parties will try to convince voters to just cast a first preference in the mistaken belief that anything else could damage them and you are in a right muddle.

There are two possible solutions to this mess.

The first would be to move to a proper two round system such as is used in France. After the first round, all but the top two are eliminated and a second vote is taken a week or two later with just the top two from the first round on the ballot paper. That way, voters can have a free choice without the risk that their vote will go to someone already eliminated.

Alternatively (pun intended), move to AV – the Alternative Vote. Here voters number all the candidates in order of preference – 1, 2, 3 etc until they cannot decide between the remainder. Candidates are excluded in turn from the lowest vote getting and their ballots distributed according to the voter’s next preference until one candidate has the support of more than half the voters. It may be that it is your fourth preference that is counted, but your vote will not be wasted. 

In my example I can safely vote:

  1. Lib Dem
  2. Green
  3. Stewart
  4. Labour
  5. Conservative

and know that if it comes down to a final round choice between Khan and Bailey then my choice will still matter.

Note: I am using the ballot preference above as an example. It aligns with my views at the moment, but things might change. Please don’t judge me too harshly if you have other opinions.

Doppelgängers

Whether it be jumping on a bandwagon or seeking to mislead the electorate, Ukraine has taken the lead in doppelgänger candidates causing confusion. But this year’s elections were not the first use of such underhand tactics and India, Russia, the UK and USA have all seen variations of this phenomenon.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

At the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine, the Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu) party of new president Volodymyr Zelensky won an overall majority with 254 out of 424 seats contested. It was the first time in the history of the country since independence that a single party had got a majority in parliament, but this was hardly the most unexpected outcome. Zelensky had won more than 73% of the vote in the second round of the presidential poll four months earlier and, whilst a lot of that vote might have been against his opponent rather than for him, there was no doubt that Zelensky and his party were massively popular. So it came as no surprise when a lot of people sought to jump on the bandwagon to gain an advantage.

Servant of the People was a political party formed by Zelensky and named after his TV show. In that production he plays a history teacher who unwittingly becomes president after a rant about corruption is illicitly videoed by his students and goes viral. The naif as president concept became hugely popular and Zelensky rode it into office with a campaign based on TV and online campaigns. In his inauguration speech he called for early parliamentary elections (as well as fundamental changes to remove immunity for elected politicians and changes to the voting system). Despite a court challenge, these snap elections happened and Servant of the People was in prime position.

Servant of the People was not the only new party. The Voice (Holos) party also appeared on the ballot paper. This was the creation of popular musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. He had talked about standing in the presidential election but chose not to in a move widely seen to be co-ordinated with Zelensky. In the event of a hung parliament it was expected that The Voice Party would be likely to align with Servant of the People. As with Servant of the People, The Voice fielded a slate comprised entirely of political newcomers. No sitting or former MP was running as a candidate for either party.

 

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A polling station in Kherson district set up for the 2019 Parliamentary elections

 

Ukraine has a mixed voting system for Parliamentary polls (although this is the subject of one of the changes proposed by the President). Around half of all MPs are elected from party lists. The remainder are elected from single mandate districts using first past the post. It was in these districts that closer contests and electoral malpractice were expected as they pitched incumbents against representatives of the new parties.

Servant of the People and The Voice were so popular that many people sought to imply their candidacies were part of these movements even when they were not. This was impossible to achieve on the national vote where lists were submitted by registered parties only. However in the single mandate districts OSCE/ODIHR found 79 candidates in 55 districts who used the name Servant of the People to run against the candidate officially nominated by that party. (In addition, other candidates campaigned with colours, logos and slogans similar to Servant of the People.) The way these candidates got the name Servant of the People onto the ballot paper was usually by claiming to be employed by an organisation of that name, of which there are currently 44 according to Ukraine’s registry of legal entities. In addition, the name Holos was used by five independent candidates in single mandate districts and in one case each the names of Opposition Platform for Life, Opposition Bloc and European Solidarity were used.

Servant of the People complained to the Central Electoral Commission who decided that the reference to employment places which coincided with the name of the party would be removed from ballot papers in some cases. However it is not clear how many cases this applied to and whether or not ballot papers were re-printed.

One candidate who was particularly put out by the decision by Servant of the People to run entirely new candidates was a sitting MP from the Bloc Petro Poroshenko (which re-named itself European Solidarity for the elections) faction who, when Volodymyr Zelensky announced his intention to run for President, left his faction and became a cheerleader for the man who would become the new President. But he was declined the opportunity to run as an official Servant of the People candidate. This did not stop him trying to imply he represented the President’s party however. His campaign literature made frequent references to the party and president and even featured (genuine) photographs of him standing alongside Zelensky. Voters, however, were not to be fooled and he lost his seat to the official Servant of the People candidate.

It is impossible to say whether these cases were all bandwagon jumpers seeking to cash in on the popularity of Servant of the People or whether some were in fact attempts at spoiler candidates initiated by electoral opponents. The suspicion is that they were mostly the former, but Ukraine has a history of another form of doppelgänger, the ‘clone candidate’.

Clone Candidates

The most well known of these clone candidates is Yuriy Tymoshenko. Mr Tymoshenko stood in the presidential contest in March as a self-nominated (independent) candidate. He revelled in the attention he received because he happened to share a name with the long-established candidate (and former Prime Minister) Yulia Tymoshenko. The similarity was not confined to their family name and first name. Both of their fathers had the name Volodymyr and so, in the Ukrainian fashion, they had similar patronymics – Volodymyrovitch for Yuriy and Volodymyrivna for Yulia. When asked about this apparent coincidence, Yuriy Tymoshenko claimed that he had announced his candidacy long before his near namesake and claimed to be a serious runner. No one believed this statement and his limited campaign material appeared in the same colours and style as his more popular namesake and used the name Y.V. Tymoshenko (Ю́ В Тимоше́нко in cyrillic script). Yuriy Tymoshenko was a spoiler, or technical, candidate aiming to draw some votes away from Yulia Tymoshenko. This was helped by the ballot papers listing candidates in alphabetical order, something unchanged despite a court challenge from Yulia Tymoshenko. In the event, Yuriy Tymoshenko won some 0.62% of the vote. This was not enough to make a difference to the outcome of the contest – Yulia Tymoshenko came third with 13.4% and was 2.55% behind the second placed candidate – but was almost certainly far more than he would have gained on his own merits. Of the 39 candidates on the ballot paper, 26 who did little or no campaigning (like Yuriy Tymoshenko) won between 0.01% and 0.17% of the vote.

 

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Ballot paper for the 2019 Ukraine Presidential election showing both Yuriy Tymoshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko

 

It is impossible to be certain whether Yuriy Tymoshenko’s candidacy was his own idea or whether he was inspired or funded by other electoral opponents of Yulia Tymoshenko. In limited interviews he claimed to be standing entirely on his own initiative. However in the paperwork required for candidacy he declared an annual income of the equivalent of $10,000 against a deposit required for candidacy of $92,000.

Clone candidates existed in Ukraine before Yuriy Tymoshenko. In 2016 UKROP candidate Oksana Valentynivna Tomchuk was opposed in the 27th constituency in the city of Dnipro by near namesakes Oksana Ivanivna Tomchuk (who also claimed to be a member of UKROP in her biography), Oksana Valeriivna Tomchuk and Oksana Hrygorivn Tomchuk.

The concept continued into the parliamentary elections. OSCE/ODIHR found 152 candidates with 69 similar or identical names standing in 42 single mandate districts. Police opened 46 investigations and the observation mission estimated that nine of the contests could have been affected by the phenomenon in that a clone candidate gained more votes than a similarly named candidate lost by.

In constituency number 25 Andriy Valeriyovych Bohdan was standing and his biography mentioned a connection to Servant of the People. Coincidentally, President Zelensky’s chief of staff is called Andriy Bohdan. Except he wasn’t running for Parliament anywhere and his patronymic is Yosypovych, not Valeriyovych. The official Servant of the People candidate, Maksym Buzhansky won the seat.

In constituency 92 in Uzhyn there were four candidates called Guzdenko with the first name of either Viktor or Vitaliy. Two had the same patronymic of Ivanovych. There are also three Oleksandr Ferenets.

In constituency 33 in Kryviy Rih, there were two Olha Volodymyrivna Babenkos. One was standing on behalf of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party and the other was self-nominated. In the same constituency there was also a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnik and a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnyk.

In constituency 38 in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk region, there was Vladislav Borodin from Servant of the People and Volodymyr Borodin, a self-nominated candidate, as well as two Vadym Nesterenkos.

Finally, in constituency 133 in Odesa, there were four people named Baranskiy — Viktor, Vitaliy, Vitaliy, and Ihor. The first two were candidates from the ideologically similar but politically separate Opposition Platform and Opposition Bloc, respectively. There were also Gontaruk and Goncharuk (both self-nominated), and two Artem Dmytruks, including one representing the Servant of the People party.

 

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Voter information posters on display at a polling station in Kherson district during the 2019 Ukraine parliamentary elections

 

Doppelgängers are not limited to Ukraine. In the UK there was a problem with candidates standing with party names designed to mimic other parties. One persistent candidate was Richard Huggett who stood in the 1994 European Parliamentary elections in the Devon and East Plymouth single member seat under the label of ‘Literal Democrat’. Mr Huggett eventually polled 10,203 votes, far more than the 700 vote majority of the Conservative candidate over the genuine Liberal Democrat. In the 1997 general election, Mr Huggett sought to stand under the name ‘Gerald Maclone’ in the Winchester constituency against sitting MP Gerald Malone. He was prevented from doing so but then stood with the label ‘Liberal Democrat – Top Choice for Parliament’. In an ensuing by-election in the seat he stood again under the ‘Literal Democrat’ label. Throughout, Huggett claimed that he was not acting on behalf of anyone other than himself and his antics, and similar undertaken by others, were only prevented by the 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act which stops candidates standing under labels which may confuse voters.

 

The Indian elections of 2014 present probably the largest single gathering of clone candidates. In one seat in Bilaspur district in the central state of Chhattisgarh no fewer than five of the 35 candidates were named Lakhan Sahu. In another, ten candidates shared the same name. The use of clone candidates might have less of an impact in a country where there are low levels of literacy and where many voters rely on party symbols to locate their chosen candidate. However there can even be similarity between symbols of candidates with the same name. In the seat of Maval in Maharashtra there were two candidates called Shrirang Barne and three named Laxman Jagtap with suspicions that each ‘real’ candidate had recruited at least one clone of their main opponent to confuse matters. The genuine Barne had the electoral symbol of a bow and arrow whilst his namesake was represented by an arrow only. The three Jagtaps were represented by a teacup, a cap and a helmet.

 

Shadow Parties

In Russia the concept of ‘shadow parties’ developed in 2003 and have been in existence ever since. The State Duma (Parliamentary) elections of that year were held at a time when Vladimir Putin was in his first term and the parliamentary elections were the first big test of his leadership. He was the head of the United Russia party but he faced genuine callanges from both the right and left, from the Communist Party and from the Liberal Democrats (now re-branded as LDPR but still led by firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky). And so Rodina was created, allegedly at the instigation of the Kremlin, to leach votes away from these two threats. They used the same symbolism and imagery as the Communists and many of the nationalist policies of the Liberal Democrats, and eventually gained 37 seats in the legislature.

It is worth repeating how shaky Putin’s grasp on power could have been in those days if he had not overseen the triumphant return of an overwhelming United Russia bloc. Russia demands a strong leader and strong leaders control parliament. In the event, United Russia won 37.6% of the votes in the national list element of the elections and just 24% in the cosntituencies, but this was enough for 223 seats overall due to the splitting of the vote. The Communists won 52 seats and the Liberal Democrats 36 seats. Had Rodina not stood, it is highly likely that the Duma result would have been far more balanced and United Russia may not have held an overal majority.

That was more than 15 years ago. But the practice of shadow parties continues. Even in the 2018 presidential election – one which Putin was certain from the outset to win and where turnout was seen as the big concern – there was a field of eight allowed. As well as the real Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Communists of Russia (KR) were on the ballot – a party with much of the same imagery, the same idolatry of historic figures (maybe a little more Stalin than Lenin) and the same policy proposals. Every vote for KR was a vote that might otherwise go to KPRF. And this time Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR had to contend with Sergey Baburin, an eccentrically coiffured former MP with the wonderful ability to conjure nomination signatures from every district and region despite never actually having any activists in place to gather them.

At the same time, Putin’s campaign material looked strikingly similar to a lot of other posters on display on billboards around the country. But far from being mirrored by another candidate or party, the incumbent president had the same colour scheme and design as the official central election commission and so every one of their millions of posters could be taken at first glance to be one for the sitting president.

 

Spoiler candidates

In the USA it might not have been shadow parties that were used, but many elections have been swung by the existence of third party candidates with similar policies to one of the main players who have been given a mysterious boost by supporters of the other.

In ‘Gaming the Vote’, William Poundstone relates the story that John Dendahl, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, quietly offered “more than $100,000” to the Green Party if they would run candidates in NM’s first and second Congressional Districts. The Greens were relatively strong in New Mexico and had already been spoilers in local races. The difference was that the Republicans were now willing to pay cash for services that had previously been free.

Poundstone also cites the June 2006 special election for the Congressman from California’s 15th district, where Republican Brian Bilbray was a ‘foaming-at-the-mouth anti-immigration hawk who supported building a fence clear from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico’. William Griffith, a running as an independent using $2000 of his own money, claimed to be even more anti-immigrant than Bilbray. Then something odd happened. Phone calls started urging voters to vote for Griffith. Radio ads too. Griffith didn’t know who was behind them. Both later turned out to have been funded by Democratic candidate Francine Busby.

 

Legal changes in the UK have shown that it is legislatively possible to prevent parties with similar names or candidates standing under labels designed to confuse. However courts and electoral commissions across the world have proved reluctant to interfere in cases where candidates with similar names choose to stand against each other, regardless of their motivation or provenance. Party names and symbols can help to lessen the confusion, as can active campaigning by the ‘real’ candidate. But even in obvious cases, it is still possible for enough voters to be confused that they cast their vote for the spoof candidate and, in tight contests, this can be enough to make the difference.

Theresa May’s meeting with Putin and the idea of a new normal (UPDATED following the meeting)

UPDATE 28/6/19 The meeting happened and here is the read out from the Prime Minister’s spokesperson.

Confirmation that a UK-Russia meeting will be held on the margins of the G20 in Japan this weekend in a bid to re-set the fractured relationship between the UK and Russia is encouraging and will be welcomed by many, but there are a lot of issues to get past if any sort of regular relationship is to be re-established. If temperatures do thaw then it will be time to get used the idea of ‘a new normal’.

At the top of the agenda, there needs to be some resolution to the issue of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury. Talks must begin there in order to satisfy not just the UK, but Russia too, Russia has been impacted by the sanctions that were imposed by a wide range of Western countries after the poisoning, perhaps the most tangible achievement of the entire Theresa May premiership. As time passes these sanctions will start to pale as Russia finds a way around them and targeted individuals are replaced. The decision this week by the Council of Europe to readmit Russia will be seen as the first major crack in the dam. But for the moment they are still having an impact and Russia wants them gone.

Talks on Salisbury won’t necessarily produce the outcome that May wants. Against all the evidence, Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the poisoning and won’t change their tune now. But there may be a chance to reach a form of words that moves things forward. A pledge by Russia to take action to prevent any such attacks happening in the future, perhaps.

But the strains in the relationship are not just about Salisbury. Russian cyber attacks on elections and other state institutions are a concern, as is aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The cyber attacks issue may reach the same conclusion as Salisbury. Russia will continue to deny involvement in the face of evidence to the contrary. But whilst it is pretty clear that Russia has developed the capability to use cyber as a weapon at many levels, it has used a range of arms-length companies to do much of this work and no longer totally controls what is happening in the field. The Russian Federation has long been gripped by a power vertical, a top down control of everything that happens, but that control has shattered in a few key areas. Introducing deniability in special operations is one such, as former state officers are setting themselves up to conduct clandestine projects at the request of the Kremlin. And Russia is not the only country where extensive cyber capabilities have been developed. Although Chinese targets tend to be of a different nature, it is clear that they too have the ability to use cyber as an offensive tool. There are other countries and private concerns that are working in the field too, including the UK which is said to be ahead of most countries.

So Putin may feel that he can continue deny responsibility for attacks on the US elections, Brexit referendum and so on. And it is clear that Russia does not believe it needs to play by the rules on free and fair internal elections, despite the international commitments it has made. What May and others will want to see, however, is some sort of agreement that elections in the West are off-limits.

This, however, creates a significant problem for Theresa May as she and the west have been loathe to accept Russian suggestions that there be defined spheres of influence. In particular, Russia sees Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus and central Asian republics as ‘their’ territory. Although NATO expansion into these areas might not be immediately on the cards, it is clear that blocking a return of a Russian-led union is a key goal, alongside a move to western style democracy for those that want it. Ukraine very clearly wants to move in this direction and Russia is determined to stop it. A deal which alludes to spheres of influence, even if it gives some peace to the West, cannot be acceptable to relatively new found allies in the East.

If some sort of rapprochement is achieved then it will not be a return to ‘business as usual’. Particularly as this means different things to each side. Relations between Russia and the West have been in a continued state of flux since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last time there was real certainty was during the Brezhnev era. For most in the West, they probably mean the mid-nineties when Russia appeared to be in a state of liberal capitalism and business could be done. But Russians often look back to that time with far less than fond memories as ordinary citizens were struggling to get by whilst the oligarchs built their empires.

Instead we are likely to see a new normal as the relationship re-sets itself according to new rules and accepted mores. These rules will take some time to bed in and will be continue to be defined by the actions of nation states. But a willingness by May and Putin to start the ball rolling with a formal meeting is the only way that a period of some stability will be possible.

Brexit Party says it will take Peterborough result to court over ‘ballot fraud’

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is going to court to challenge the result of the by-election in Peterborough earlier this month. Such a move is high profile, but very difficult to prove and can be risky even if successful.

At the time of the election, the Brexit Party, which lost by 683 votes, claimed that there had been fraud connected with postal votes. Five complaints have been made to police – although it is not clear whether any or all of these have been made by the Brexit Party – and so far three of these complaints have been dismissed.

Both Nigel Farage and Brexit Party chair Richard Tice have spoken in broad terms about corruption linked to the by-election, but have not given any specific details of what they allege took place. Mr Tice is quoted in the Guardian as saying:

“There are a lot of rumours, a lot of hearsay, some of which is just that. There is evidence emerging. That will be presented to the electoral court. It’s wrong to prejudge that, or announce that now. It’s only by having a full petition that we can truly get to the bottom of what may or may not have happened here, but also the lessons for the broader system.”

Election watchers in the UK will be looking closely to see what details emerge if the election petition is lodged as the Brexit Party have said it will be. In order to make any progress, the party will need to be able to make and prove detailed and specific allegations. Even then, the result will only be overturned and a fresh election ordered if the judge is convinced that the outcome has been affected by illegal activities. Even if the Brexit Party were able to prove that some fraudulent votes were cast (itself a high burden), it does not mean that a re-run would happen.

When new elections do happen, it does not always go to plan for the party which has brought and won the court case. The most recent case concerning a Parliamentary election was in Oldham East and Saddleworth in 2010 when former minister Phil Woolas was found to have made untrue statements about an opponent. Voters backed Labour in the re-run. And in 1997, after the Conservatives brought a court case over the result in Winchester where they were declared to have lost by 2 votes, the re-election produced a much more emphatic result – the small matter of a 21,556 majority for the Liberal Democrats.