Voters can’t be trusted?

Law makers think the public is too fickle and shallow to be trusted to talk to each other without changing their minds. That’s the core principle behind the 1993 law preventing ‘publishing’ of political statements on election-day.

The decision by the Electoral Commission to warn people to close down internet forums has highlighted Part 6 of the Electoral Act 1993 , which governs “Interfering with or influencing voters”.

The law states that it is an offence on election day if someone “exhibits in or in view of any public place, or publishes, or distributes, or broadcasts, (i) any statement advising or intended or likely to influence any elector as to the candidate or party for whom the elector should or should not vote; or (ii) any statement advising or intended or likely to influence any elector to abstain from voting;”

A related paragraph implies that this section covers the internet. It specifically lists reasons why a “website” would be allowed to carry such statements, such as publication prior to election day. 

The law has drawn commentary because it appears to be anachronistic in light of the liveliness and ubiquity of social media. Commentators think that either the law is silly given our new ways of communicating inter-personally, or that it seems ridiculously impractical given the weight of social media chat. 

Few people see chatter over social media as “publication”. They think of social media as a means of sharing ideas they would happily vocalise if they were in physical proximity of the others they are chatting with.

Pragmatically, perhaps more than on a free speech principle, the law doesn’t stop people talking socially – ie. in the physical presence of each other – about their political preferences. It does stop someone doing it if they are “campaigning”.

Some commentators say the law raises the solemnity of election day, and provides space for voters to make their choice free of clutter.

The very idea of solemnity of voting day is ridiculous. Politics and voting is not  rarefied, restrained, and considered. It’s boisterous and contentious; as befits a nation carving out a common ideology.

Stupidly, the law has been usurped by itself. The same law that protects voters from campaigning on election day, allows people to vote early – during the campaigning period.

The real reason for the law is a political one: parties want to stop each other getting to voters on their ways to the polls. And why do they want to do that? Because they believe voters are shallow enough to be swayed by a last minute appeal. The law was made by politicians who wanted to protect the votes they might have built up through campaigning. They don’t want their opposition to wreck it all by grabbing the voter outside the election booth.

The only reason this idea worries politicians is that they believe people vote without commitment and without rationale. They think people are shallow enough to respond to cheap last minute appeals.

If that’s what politicians think about us, then the solemnity of election day is a sham.

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