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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4 responses to “Should people who threaten candidates be banned from voting?”

  1. Good points, Mark. And then there’s also the question of how to deal with the practicalities (one example is how to ensure that someone who might have already returned their postal vote has their vote discounted). Interesting idea from the Commission, though.

  2. I am someone who has been bluntly critical of my MP, based on what he has or hasn’t said, pointing out where he has been contradictory in what he has said at different times or between what he says and what he does, or where he has said nothing about an important issue and instead focused on other less important issues, or where he has simply ignored his constituents. It has always been based on fact and never simply abusive emotional rhetoric.

    But immediately after the last election, some of us were accused by him of being “vile and libellous”. He has continued these accusations in parliament, and this proposal to revise these laws will be in part a result of these whinges. I have challenged him to provide evidence and to sue me for libel if he feels he has any – and would welcome the opportunity to prove this in open court – however he has refused to provide any evidence or to take his unsubstantiated claim any further, so somewhat ironically his accusation seems itself to be libellous.

    I do not condone any racial, gender or religious abuse, nor simple emotional ranting without any factual basis, but this government in particular needs to be VERY careful about this because they have already destroyed the majority of democratic safeguards in this country – and curtailing free speech which is critical of their MPs would be a very retrograde step indeed.

  3. Has any research been done as to whither trolls actually vote?
    I doubt that any troll thinks that they will be caught, therefore they do not think of the conseqences.So that the idea that they would lose their vote (for how long?) would not cross there mind whist they are enjoying abusing somebody.
    I think that the only punishment which might have an effect is to reintroduce stocks

  4. Two things: (1) What of the abuse on the doorstep though? How is that going to be dealt with? That is much more unsettling as most of us doorknock in our own neighbourhoods and those who abuse us know where to find us.
    (2) Most of abusive doorstep responses and threats I met with since the coalition were prompted by Labour’s simplistic, populist doorstep agitation on the lines: “they want to take our NHS from us and make us pay for every treatment”… “they want to take your house from you” (how local Labour dealt with the bedroom tax on the doorstep in 2014 local election), “they want to take money from the schools to fund the bankers”…, etc, etc… So, some of my neighbours who abused me on their doorstep were merely simple-minded enough, impressionable enough, vulnerable enough to be taken in by crass political messages of class struggle and “them and us” politics that work time and again. How does the law deal with that?

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