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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Did the vote leave campaigns cheat during the referendum?

It is most probably far too late to get anywhere in challenging the validity of the EU referendum result, but nevertheless the extent to which the Vote Leave campaigns were prepared to break the rules to win is well worth noting.

It is already a matter of record that the campaign group Leave.EU has been fined £70,000 for breaches of election law in the 2016 EU referendum. According to the Electoral Commission, this group, which was separate from the official pro-Brexit group Vote Leave, failed to report "at least" £77,380 which it spent.

The Electoral Commission said Leave.EU had exceeded the spending limit for "non-party registered campaigners" by at least 10% by failing to include at least £77,380 in its spending return - the fee paid to campaign organiser Better for the Country Ltd - and added the overspend "may well have been considerably higher than that".

Its spending return also did not include services Leave.EU had received from a US campaign strategy firm, Goddard Gunster, and the group "inaccurately reported" three loans totalling £6m from Mr Banks - including who had provided them - and did not provide invoices or receipts for 97 separate payments, totalling £80,224. The Commission has referred Leave.EU chief executive Liz Bilney to the police, saying it had reasonable grounds to suspect she had committed criminal offences over campaign spending.

The Electoral Commission's investigation also looked into whether Leave.EU had received any services from Cambridge Analytica which should have been declared on its spending return, but found no evidence that the group received donations or paid for services from the political consultancy.

Now, the Guardian reports that Vote Leave, the lead campaigner for a Brexit vote, and BeLeave, a campaign group run by an activist named Darren Grimes, used identical data to target audiences, according to a letter from Facebook to the Electoral Commission. This raises new questions about potential coordination between the two groups:

Vote Leave spent millions of pounds buying targeted online advertising through AggregateIQ during the referendum campaign, pushing up against its strict £7m spending limit. However, in the closing days of the campaign, Vote Leave donated £625,000 to Grimes, who then also spent the money with AggregateIQ. At that time Grimes was regularly seen volunteering in the Vote Leave office.

Both Vote Leave and Grimes have insisted that there was no coordination between the campaigns on how the money was spent, which could potentially have broken electoral law.

The new letter was sent from Facebook to the Electoral Commission as part of its ongoing investigation into potential breaches of campaign finance rules and was published by the parliamentary committee investigating fake news. It reveals that Vote Leave and BeLeave appear to have used three identical datasets during the referendum campaign to locate potential recipients of targeted pro-Brexit Facebook adverts.

“They were the exact same audiences,” said Facebook’s Gareth Lambe, who also revealed that $2m (£1.5m) of AggregateIQ’s entire $3.5m Facebook advertising spend over the last four years appeared to be associated with the EU referendum.

In addition to Vote Leave and BeLeave, AggregateIQ ran adverts for the Democratic Unionist party’s pro-Brexit campaign, as well as another campaign group called Veterans for Britain.

If this collusion is proven then it could be another serious breach of electoral law. We will now need to see whether the Electoral Commission is prepared to take its investigation further with this new information.
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