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Collecting candidate statements is hard, let's collect emails instead


Hopefully this is not how candidate statements will be collected

A proposed legislative change aims to publish ‘candidate statements’ for electoral candidates in Wales.

While this will be good for voters, it poses significant administrative challenges. In this post we suggest a practical way to collect the information at scale: collect candidates’ email addresses and use them to create verified accounts in the system that hosts the statements.

The Elections and Elected Bodies (Wales) Bill

A few weeks back we posted about some exciting developments the Welsh Government are working on. As the bill moves through the legislative process there is increasing focus on how to implement some of the changes.

One of these changes is to publish a ‘candidate statement’ for each person standing for election.

The idea is to change the way people sign up to stand for election. In addition to the current process, candidates would be asked for a personal statement to voters. This statement would then be published on a website run by a new Electoral Management Board.

This already happens in Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections in England and Wales. Candidates are able to submit a statement of up to 300 words which is checked by the Police Area Returning Officer to make sure it adheres to the rules. Assuming it isn’t rejected, it is posted online for voters to read.

From a voter’s perspective, this is a great idea. A large number of people don’t really know who they’re voting for. This forces them to vote based on party or a particular national policy position, or they might not vote at all, out of frustration. The feedback to WhoCanIVoteFor is consistently filled with frustrated comments regarding the lack of information about candidates.

The problem

However, collecting and validating election statements from every candidate (thousands in a council election) will add more administrative and editorial burden to electoral services teams. The system works for PCCs because there are very few candidates in these elections.

Colin Everett from the Wales Electoral Coordination Board recently talked about this in evidence to the committee:

when it comes to candidate statements, you’ll see our evidence is quite strong on this. It would be impossible, and I’m not dramatising this, for electoral administrators to be able to receive, check for compliance—there would have to be checking for compliance on the size of the statement, its truthfulness and particularly that it didn’t breach any law for rules, for defamation for example, because some candidates like to talk openly about others. It would be impossible, particularly in a local election, when you have such a tight timescale, with lots of nominations coming in quite close to the wire, when you’re fielding hundreds of community and principal council candidates. It’s impossible; we’d say ‘no’, we couldn’t do it. And if this goes ahead, it will need, in our view, to be a self-posting system, hosted probably nationally by a.n.other, and not a requirement. Because, if it’s a requirement, theoretically, somebody not producing a statement in good time that is compliant, would then have to have their nomination disqualified.

Clare Sim from the Association of Electoral Administrators added to Colin’s comments:

the burden that would place on electoral administrators and returning officers would be significant [….] it does raise questions as to whether things in existence like Democracy Club, who’ve done brilliant work to establish platforms where they collate all the information as to what elections are happening, where people’s polling stations are—candidates can submit their own statements if they wish to that platform—whether that is actually a more appropriate way, going forward, that takes the cost and the burden away from elections teams, from the returning officers and from Welsh Government, when a platform already exists that kind of does what I think is being envisaged that this platform will do, but just maybe giving that more of a status and awareness, so candidates are aware that there’s a resource for them to upload statements to, and a greater awareness among the public that that resource exists as well.

We agree with Clare and Colin about the burden, and would like to be part of delivering a platform to collect and host candidate statements. As Clare points out, we already do this as part of our candidates project.

There’s a problem with Democracy Club’s current system of collecting statements: we can’t actually verify that an edit is from a candidate (or their agent). We allow edits from any user of the system, and verify that statements are valid by requiring a source for edits. This works well, and the vast majority of edits are legitimate statements, however we wouldn’t want to rely on this system if all Welsh candidates were mandated to use it, as it is difficult to manage at scale.

A proposed solution

Back in 2018, during the initial consultation, we suggested that candidates be required to provide and email address at the point of nomination, rather than a statement.

Providing statements at nomination time might be complex to administer and there are issues to consider, such as if and how changes should be made over the course of the campaign, and for how long statements remain public after the election.

Q32: Do you agree that each candidate should be required to provide a personal statement for inclusion on a website provided by the authority to whom they are seeking election?

Providing statements at nomination time might be complex to administer and there are issues to consider, such as if and how changes should be made over the course of the campaign, and for how long statements remain public after the election.

Democracy Club is occasionally asked to remove information on candidates who stood for a party in the past that they no longer wish to be associated with – local government would need to decide a position on whether or how this should be done.

We believe that the most valuable piece of data that the authority could collect is a campaign email address for the candidate.

This would bring a number of benefits:

  1. The election teams themselves would be able to contact the candidates more easily;

  2. Third parties like Democracy Club would be able to verify a candidate’s identity via the email address the authority publishes. This would allow us to offer verified statements to the public without the electoral teams getting involved with the content of the statements;

Read our full 2018 consultation response here.

Put simply, an email address would allow us to verify that an edit to a statement to voters was actually provided by the candidate, or at least someone with access to the provided email address. It doesn’t require a user account and password, as the system could work on one-time links. This would provide a “chain of trust” from the nomination form, to our website, and back to the candidate.

This system has a number of advantages:

  1. Collecting an email address is much easier to do than collecting a statement. The email might not be considered as personal data if it’s a campaign specific address (we’d need to run this by a lawyer to be sure).
  2. We can offer “blue tick” accounts (if anyone is old enough to remember Twitter) to candidates and give them special access to the statement to voters field.
  3. We can email candidates with all the details they need, and a simple link to click that means they don’t need to create a user account.
  4. The complexities of processing text that might be defamatory or illegal is reduced to some extent. The problem is moved from pre- moderation (approving and risking looking like the council was endorsing the statement before publication) to post- moderation (taking down if there’s a problem, but otherwise leaving publication up to the candidate themselves). Again, a lawyer would need to weigh in, but this at least removes electoral services teams from the process.

Of course we don’t yet know if the statements would be mandatory and when in the timeline of the election they would need to be published. The way we would implement our solution in the current system would be to import the email addresses once the Statement of Persons Nominated are published, and then allow the candidate to upload a statement. It might be more complex if the legislation mandated a statement be provided at the point of nomination.

Our recommendation is to decouple the statement from the nomination process. Nomination is already complex and time sensitive enough without adding more complexity. Based on traffic to our sites over the last few years, it would be sufficient to require a statement to be uploaded roughly two weeks before an election. Our traffic shows that most visitors look at candidate profiles in the last few days before an election.

Ideally we would be able to automate importing the email address alongside the candidate nomination, but that would form part of a wider conversation about how electoral software can export data to a central service. For the time being, adding an email address to the Statement of Persons Nominated (maybe in place of a home address?) would suffice.

How we might test this

Of course we want to see candidate information collection ‘done properly’, in that we want systems created via primary and secondary legislation that allows us to automate as much as possible. We think the Welsh government are approaching the problem with this in mind, but we’re also keen to see if we can trial any system before the legislation is enacted.

We’re reaching out to political parties to see if we can get lists of candidates from them directly. We have these lists from a couple of major parties already, including email addresses for each candidate.

Before the general election we plan to pilot this method of verification via email, allowing us to create verified statements from the candidates themselves.

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