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Improving discourse during election and referendum campaigns

Quality political discourse is an essential part of democracy.  But recent events – notably during the UK’s 2016 EU referendum campaign and the 2016 US presidential election campaign – have led many people of all political persuasions to worry that the quality of discourse is currently too low. Particular concerns focus on the need for balanced and reliable information and on the dangers posed by the easy availability of seductive misinformation.

This project therefore seeks to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. By examining existing practice in the UK and around the world, as well as proposals for innovative reforms, the project aims to offer proposals as to whether and how the conduct of election and referendum campaigns might be reformed with a view to improving the quality of campaign discourse. In particular, the project will examine the application of three types of mechanisms for improving discourse during election and referendum campaigns: first, directly banning false or misleading statements; second, fact-checking and countering misleading or false statements; third, promoting the availability of impartial and high-quality information.

The research has three components. The first is a general survey of practice across a wide range of democracies, in order to identify ideas that deserve more detailed investigation. The second is a set of detailed case studies of states with innovative practices around elections and referendums. The third is a detailed consideration of the UK context, which will inform our recommendations as to the options that might best suit this context.

The main output will be a Constitution Unit report setting out the options and making clear recommendations, which will be published at the end of the project in spring 2018. This page will be updated with interim outputs, such as posts on the Constitution Unit Blog, and events.

The project is generously funded by the McDougall Trust for one year from May 2017. It is led by Dr Alan Renwick, with Michela Palese as Research Assistant and McDougall Fellow.

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