Voting ban could deter social media abuse of politicians, says election watchdog

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Banning social media trolls from voting could help tackle the amount of abuse faced by politicians, the elections watchdog has said.

The Electoral Commission said legislation should be reviewed and new offences could be required to bring laws around elections up to date.

The commission said many offences under electoral law dated back to the 1800s or earlier and were spread over many pieces of legislation.

It said: "In some instances electoral law does specify offences in respect of behaviour that could also amount to an offence under the general, criminal law."

This is because they carry special sanctions such as the person convicted losing their elected office or being disqualified from being registered as an elector, voting or standing in an election.

"It may be that similar special electoral consequences could act as a deterrent to abusive behaviour in relation to candidates and campaigners," the commission said.

A reform of electoral legislation would help in "clarifying and strengthening" existing offences and identifying any gaps in the law, the commission said in evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is investigating the intimidation faced by parliamentary candidates.

(Dominic Lipinski/PA)
(Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The commission also recommended updating electoral law to take proper account of social media posts, so people could see who is responsible for material placed online.

The Electoral Commission's comments came as as a BBC survey indicated almost 90% of MPs experienced abuse during the General Election campaign.

Just over half - 51% - of MPs who responded to the study said the June election was the worst campaign they had experienced in terms of abuse.

One Labour MP told the survey someone had threatened to bomb her office, while another MP claimed to have had a "bottle smashed on me".

(Dominic Lipinski/PA)
(Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The anonymous survey carried out by BBC Radio 5 Live received responses from 113 of the UK's 650 MPs.

It revealed 87% of those who responded said they had faced some form of abuse on the campaign trail.

In an indication of the scale of the problem on social media, three-quarters of the MPs who replied reported examples of online abuse in the 2017 campaign.

The abuse came from the public and members of rival parties, although 10 Labour MPs reported abuse from members of their own party.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said Prime Minister Theresa May viewed the abuse and intimidation of candidates during the election as "unacceptable".

"She asked the Committee for Standards in Public Life to have a look at that and we'll see what they come back with," the spokeswoman said.

"More generally, I think what she would say is that there is a clear difference between legitimate scrutiny and conduct that is fuelled by hate and personal abuse."