Political advertisements on social media would have to state who was paying for them under wholesale reforms to laws governing elections proposed today. New legislation to replace the UK's 'out-dated, confusing and no longer fit for purpose' corpus of election law, would also clarify the circumstances in which a poll could be suspended or challenged, a joint report by the Law Commissions of England and Scotland say.

The report, the fruit of more than six years' study and consultation, proposes new primary legislation to replace some 25 major statutes and 30 sets of regulations, largely drawn up on an election-by-election basis. 'There is simply too much (largely identical) legislation, which has become confusing to understand and cumbersome to change,' the commissioners state. 

Recommendations for reform include: 

  • Rationalising laws into a single, consistent legislative framework with consistent electoral laws across all elections, except where there are clear and necessary differences, for example due to different voting ages. 
  • Allowing polls to be suspended following 'any incident where a significant portion of electors are affected and unable to vote, including flooding and adverse weather or an act of terrorism'. The report does not specifically mention disease outbreaks. 
  • Replacing the mixture of nomination forms for candidates with a single set of papers, to be delivered in consistent ways. 
  • Requiring digital imprints for online campaign material, including for social media advertisements. Information would include who has paid for the advertisement as is the case for leaflets and traditional advertisements.
  • Improving how election results can be challenged. Returning officers would have powers to bring challenges and courts the power to weed out ill-founded claims that waste court time. The commission recommends making it clear that parties can rely on protective costs orders to limit their exposure to costs. 
  • A simplified offence of bribery, for anyone acting with an intention to procure or prevent the casting of a vote at an election.

The report does not cover issues such as electoral boundaries, voter identification or the regulation of national campaigns, which it was decided were too political in nature.

Sir John Holmes, chair of the Electoral Commission, welcomed the report, saying the commission's recommendations have the support of electoral administrators, political parties and campaigners. He called for the UK’s governments and parliaments to 'work towards a consolidated and consistent legislative framework'. The Cabinet Office is to publish an interim response 'in due course'.