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Proposed Electoral Law Changes Would Hinder Polling Day Election Coverage

The News Media Association has urged the Law Commission not to pursue its suggested changes to electoral law that would criminalise taking photos in polling stations, extend the offence of failing to imprint, and bring in new court reporting restrictions in cases involving electoral fraud.

As reported by the News Media Association: The proposals, that form part of an initial consultation exercise by the Commission, also include steps to “pave the way” towards ending the publication of some public notices relating to elections in local newspapers.

In its response to the Commission, the NMA said that a blanket ban on photography inside polling stations would hamper the ability of newspapers to cover elections adding that a “ban on photography in polling stations would catch these harmless activities which have nothing to do with the kind of voter fraud and manipulation that the proposal is attempting to target.”

The Commission is also seeking views on extending the offence of failing to provide the necessary imprints of political advertising to online publishers. At the moment, print publishers can attract liability if they publish adverts that do not display correct information about the name and address of the election agent and candidate.

The NMA pointed out that it is already Electoral Commission best practice to do this so it may not be necessary to legislate on this at all. The NMA added that if the law is to be extended, liability should not fall on publishers who have shown due diligence before running the ad. There should also be no requirement to include in the imprint the publisher’s name and address, just as there is not with print.

The Commission also suggests that reporters should also face new restrictions when covering cases of alleged electoral fraud. Citing concerns about preserving the secrecy of the ballot, the Commission proposes that reporters should only be allowed to report in detail on how votes were cast when the voter has been proved to have acted dishonestly.

In the NMA's response, it expressed concern that cases caught by the restriction would include those where a voter voted a certain way not out of dishonesty, but because they were coerced to vote a certain way or because their vote was tampered with somehow. The NMA warned that this could “conceal from the public the extent and nature of these crimes and so shield the individuals, and possibly even candidates and political parties, responsible for them from public condemnation.”

Another idea backed by the Commission is to “pave the way” for some of the statutory notices to the public about elections and candidate expenses to be published online instead of in local newspapers. The NMA drew to the Commission’s attention research by GFK from 2012 that found that over a quarter of the adult population read public notices in their local newspaper, more than twice as many as local council websites.

The most recent ONS figures put the internet-exclusion rate at just over 12 per cent nationally and as higher than 15 per cent in some parts of the country, such as Northern Ireland and the West Midlands.” Public notices about elections must be published in the format that is most accessible to all groups in society and that means local newspapers,” the NMA added.

The consultation has now closed. The Commission will review the responses and draw up finalised proposals in a report that will come out towards the end of the year.