08:21, September 19 107 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-19 08:21:03
Social media trolls may be vile – but they shouldn’t be barred from voting

The British government’s claim to legitimacy rests entirely on the existence of universal suffrage. Theoretically, at least, we accept the state’s power to fine, imprison and otherwise penalise us not only because it happens to be the best at wielding power, but because all adult citizens have some input into the laws we are governed by. That’s pretty much the central principle of representative democracy.

Voting rights are not a special privilege. They are not something the state should be able to take away as a form of petty discipline, like a parent deciding an obstinate child should go to bed without dessert. So it’s worrying to see the Electoral Commission recommend that “social media trolls” be punished in this manner, treating a core civil right as something that can be blithely withdrawn.

It’s not that I don’t take online trolling seriously – I have experienced more than my fair share of it. Like most women with strong opinions and some sort of public profile, I’ve been sent rape threats, death threats and been called every name under the sun. Strangers have done bizarre and unsettling things to photographs of my face. I’ve felt scared for my physical safety because of communications I’ve received online.

Many such messages are already illegal according to existing laws – probably rightly so. I’m generally wary of the creation of new criminal offences, but persistent, targeted, credible threats of violence aren’t acceptable in any other context, so why should the internet be any different? Others, though, were just unpleasant. I don’t enjoy being bombarded with sexist slurs but I don’t think anyone should be incarcerated for it. “Trolling” has become an incredibly nebulous term which incorporates everything from graphic rape fantasies and stalking to being called a “fat prick”.

The UK already removes voting rights from people convicted of offences, of course, providing they are given a custodial sentence. The Electoral Commission’s recommendation appears to be that this should be extended to cover crimes too trivial to receive time in prison. The European court of human rights has condemned the UK’s blanket ban on voting for convicted prisoners, and there does seem to be something deeply wrong about barring people from participating in the very democracy they’re being punished by.

(If you find it hard to get too worked up about the rights of murderers and child abusers, remember there are also many people in prison for non-violent offences. Remember also that it’s our legal system that determines who is, for example, the legitimate occupant of a home, and who is a squatter deserving of imprisonment.)

Further extending the use of voting bans as a form of punishment would undermine the UK’s status as a functioning democracy. Given how widespread internet trolling is, it’s inevitable that questions will be asked about who is and isn’t targeted. The Electoral Commission’s recommendation was part of an inquiry into the intimidation of political candidates. But what makes trolling an MP qualitatively different from trolling a fellow citizen? The argument needs to be made, if one warrants the removal of a civil right and the other doesn’t.

Before embarking on a measure such as this, it’s worth gathering evidence about who is most likely to be abusive or angry towards politicians online. I’d guess: people at the end of their tether. Individuals who have been failed by the state in some way and are lashing out as a result. Arguably, the people whose needs politicians should most take into account.

People who have faced particular difficulties are already disproportionately likely to end up in prison and lose their voting rights on that basis. Poorer people and those in unstable living situations are also the most likely to be hit by Conservative plans to make photo ID a requirement for voting – even though the form of electoral fraud it’s ostensibly intended to prevent is basically non-existent in this country.

However well-meaning the suggestion, what this recommendation seems to suggest is that our establishment takes voting rights rather lightly. It’s up to all of us to fight back against the pernicious, gradual erosion of our democracy. Poor people and those with chaotic lives shouldn’t be prevented from voting because of expensive photo ID requirements, designed to solve a problem it’s widely accepted does not actually exist. Prisoners should be granted voting rights. And, certainly, we must resist the expansion of voting bans as punishment for more trivial offences. It’s important not to let reasonable concern about the online abuse suffered by MPs blind us to the implications of such a move. Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, who received more abuse than any other MP during the last election, has opposed the suggestion.

Politicians are elected to represent us. Their mandate derives from the democratic legitimacy our votes invest them with. Nobody deserves to receive abuse while carrying out their job, but meddling with the basic principles underpinning our political system is not an acceptable (or, in all likelihood, a particularly effective) solution. As they consider this proposal, I’d like to remind the government that it’s the electorate who grant them their power. For society to continue to function properly, there are certain rules they must not disregard.

Abi Wilkinson is a freelance journalist