Robust public debate is an accepted part of all levels of politics. While candidates must accept a certain level of questions and criticism during their campaign, there have been reported instances where candidates have been harassed online, followed or received death threats.
During the election period, we spoke to a number of long-term councillors who were contesting their third or fourth term. These experienced councillors reported that the 2020 election period was the most vindictive and vitriolic election they had participated in. We also received similar feedback from a local council which had spent a significant period of time dealing with complaints by candidates. This is a concerning trend and one we will monitor.
The election period is short and it is not always possible for us to receive and deal with complaints as quickly as complainants would like
A lot of the complaints we received were driven by a misunderstanding of the definition of ‘misleading and deceptive behaviour’. During a political debate, candidates can speak freely but unethical behaviour is not necessarily illegal.
If we receive an allegation from a candidate about false electoral material that does not fit the definition of ‘misleading and deceptive’ in the legislation, we encouraged candidates to redirect their focus away from corresponding with us about the allegation and to concentrate on putting the issues to voters and continuing their campaign.
Many complaints focused on allegations of a breach of Section 287 of the Local Government Act 2020(opens in a new window), Printing and publication of electoral material (see Appendix 1) with the majority related to material published online. Because the wording in the Act does not specifically mention online or social media material, we joined the VEC in publishing information for candidates leading up to the election to advise them on the correct methods for authorising their campaign material on social media.
- Updating of the definition of ‘electoral material’ in section 3(1) to encompass social media and other forms of electronic communication.9
- Section 287 of the Act should be amended to incorporate social media and other forms of electronic communication.
9. Section 3(1) is listed in Appendix 1.
Case studies – Allegations of false or misleading material
Case study – Allegations of improper conduct