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It’s now just 12 weeks until millions of people will go to the ballot box in England. And who knows how little time we have until the General Election?
In May, those in England will be electing thousands of councillors plus mayors in London, the East Midlands, Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, the North East, South Yorkshire, Tees Valley, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, and York & North Yorkshire. And across England and Wales, new Police and Crime Commissioners (remember them?) are being picked.
These mayoral and PCC elections will be happening under a new voting system – well, a Victorian one imposed on them following the Elections Act 2022.
But these aren’t the only democratic challenges this year.
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The upcoming General Election will require mandatory Voter ID for the first time ever, sparking concerns about its impact on voter turnout and access. Recent polling by WeThink for this paper showed that up to ten million voters are unaware of the new requirements. It’s a potential disaster in the making.
Ministers have also awarded themselves a huge hike in the election spending limit, with an 80% rise in the cap for political parties. Needless to say, only Sunak’s party knows when the election will be, giving them a major advantage.
The Government has handed a new strategy to the Electoral Commission – for the first time steering what was previously an independent elections watchdog.
Meanwhile, around eight million people are completely missing from the electoral roll in Britain, with little indication that this gap is being closed. Indeed, many of those missing millions will have to both register to vote, and to order photo ID.
As usual super-safe seats will be ignored by parties and the media- while a handful of swing seats will lap up parties’ largesse and compete for votes.
“Dark money” and a lack of funding transparency in political campaigns will leave open questions about the sources of campaign cash – and the influence of opaque groups and think tanks on our elections.
Help us investigate disinformation and electoral exclusion as we head towards the 2024 General Election.
Byline Times and the Bylines Network want to launch the most ambitious monitoring project for this year’s elections – #VoteWatch24. We will be coordinating hundreds of volunteers across the country to show what’s really happening on the ground by sending in news from constituencies across the UK.
Wherever there is voter suppression, misinformation, or dodgy funds, we’ll be here to call it out. Across Britain, months ahead of polling day, the work is about to begin.
But we need your support to make this crucial project a reality. If we don’t make this effort, no one else will. Can you help us cover the staff and infrastructure we need to make it possible?
Take just one example: unlike businesses and charities, political parties are not subject to anti-money laundering regulations – the rules to prevent illicit cash flowing into the system. It’s a situation that Electoral Commission chair John Pullinger has described as untenable. And yet it persists.
Nor is there any cap on the amount one person or company can donate to a political cause or party: one British citizen living in Russia for the past 50 years could, in theory, bankroll a party’s entire election campaign, with that party indebted to the tune of £5m, £15m, £30m or more.
This year, we may see the emergence of new ‘astroturf’ groups – PR-firm initiated campaigns that have little genuine popular support, but can shape political discourse, fueled by money from industry groups and wealthy donors.
These battles will be both on and offline. Millions will be spent on ‘microtargeting’ voters online, with the opportunity for highly personalised and potentially manipulative campaign strategies.
But at the same time, parties will use dirty tricks locally – issuing election leaflets that masquerade as local newspapers, blurring the lines between genuine news and campaign propaganda.
Misinformation and disinformation, from activists here but also potentially from hostile states, pose a significant risk to the integrity of elections by leading voters to question who they can really trust.
That problem is sent into overdrive by the advent of deepfakes and generative AI – with this year marking the first genuine ‘artificial intelligence elections’ in the UK.
Oh, and the expansion of the overseas franchise in 2024 has led to an addition of two million extra potential overseas voters. They’ll be able to vote wherever they last lived in the UK, sometimes many decades ago.
A Plan of Action
As a result of all this, UK elections face major challenges to their integrity this year.
And we need hard-hitting media – fearless investigative journalism – to follow the cash and the ads, and to call out dodgy campaigning when it rears its head. That’s where you come in.
Alongside the local heroes at the Bylines Network, our sister organisation, we want to launch an ambitious project to track these issues and put democracy front and centre this year.
VoteWatch 2024 will have three core focuses:
- Voter Suppression – Monitoring the Voter ID Rollout and the Democratic Deficit
- Money in Politics – Who’s Funding the Debate?
- Corrupted Campaigning – Tracking Disinformation, Deepfakes and Dodgy Actors
We’re relying on our supporters to make the project a reality. Because we know that if we don’t make this effort, no one else will.
So this is an ask: please help us cover the staff, infrastructure and investigative resources we need to make it possible. We need to raise £20,000 to get this off the ground – and when we raise it, the work starts with gusto. We’ve got exciting plans but it will take all our efforts to get it off the ground.
There’s more to do – and this one doesn’t cost a penny. We want to work with readers across the country to get a continuous stream of perspectives, insights and news of what’s happening on the ground.
What does the election campaign look like where you are? Why have candidates and parties been saying? What leaflets are you getting – and who’s targeting you on social media?
We’re looking for as many volunteers as possible – citizen sentinels – to watch the ground campaign and feed into our national reporting. We’ll put the spotlight on dirty tricks, wherever it’s happening, while building a picture of emerging campaign trends.
It’s a biggy, but we think if anyone can do it, it’s us and the hundreds of citizen journalists at the Bylines Network and its 10 regional sites.
So, can you sign up to be a VoteWatch Volunteer?
Thanks for your support. It’s going to be a dirty year in politics, but we can help clean it up.
Fill in our short form to become a VoteWatch Volunteer here and we’ll be in touch soon.
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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.
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