Should people who threaten candidates be banned from voting?

That’s the idea the Electoral Commission has floated:

Social media trolls who abuse prospective MPs online could be banned from voting under new proposals from the Electoral Commission.

The watchdog has recommended that election legislation, much of which dates from the 19th century, should be overhauled to increase deterrents for those found guilty of abusing election candidates…

The Electoral Commission recommended “specific electoral consequences” for those found guilty of abusing candidates, which “could act as a deterrent to abusive behaviour”.

Some forms of abusive behaviour are offences under existing electoral legislation and therefore carry special sanctions, including the convicted person being disqualified from voting or losing their elected office.

However, the Commission said that much of the relevant criminal law dates back two centuries and is spread over many pieces of individual legislation. It has recommended that the government reforms existing offences to help to “clarify and strengthen” legal protection for candidates. [The Times]

One difficulty, of course, is defining abuse at a point which protects legitimate freedom of speech (it’s ok for me to really not like at all Nick Griffin). That question of when dislike becomes intimidation or threats of violence is repeatedly a difficult one to define in other areas of law.

But the other difficulty is whether a punishment such as losing your right to vote is likely to be effective in curbing online abuse. Is the mindset of those who post the sort of messages that result in candidates having to have panic buttons installed really one open to change by the idea that they might not then be able to vote against said candidate?

UPDATE: The Electoral Commission has since backed away from this, with a comment along the lines of ‘we didn’t say this law should be changed, just that it should be looked at’. From their official blog:

We have not simply recommended that internet trolls, or anybody else, should lose their rights to vote. Nor do we seek to, or think people would want us to, become a ‘Truth Commission’, deciding what can and can’t be said in election campaigns. As some commentators were quick to point out this week, that would be a dangerous road down which to embark. I couldn’t agree more.

What we did point out was that some existing election offences already carry special consequences for those found guilty of them, including removal from the electoral register or preventing them from voting for up to five years. That this is so little understood is a good indication of just how outdated and irrelevant much of the decades or centuries old legislation around elections is today.

We went on to suggest that it would be worth considering, in looking at any new legislation, whether some similar special consequences could be a deterrent in today’s circumstances. Whether they really would be appropriate would obviously be a question for the legal experts in the first place and then for Parliament. We were not attempting to take a view either way.

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