UK Elections Bill - pros and cons
By Stuart Smith
The recently published Elections Bill in the UK Parliament is an attempt to rig our electoral system to favour the Conservative & Unionist Party. It will makes changes to the administration and conduct of elections with the stated aim of ensuring that 'UK elections remain secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent.' How this will impact elections in Scotland is unclear. But given this dysfunctional, discredited, bunch of people led by the great discombobulator anything can happen.
Part of the proposals weaken the power and independence of the elections watchdog. It will also make it harder for individuals to vote in person and by post. It has the potential to open up our politics to a new wave of big money overseas donors.
As for the Electoral Commission the proposals are aimed at:
- ending the independence of the Electoral Commission - the Commission will have its priorities set by a Conservative-dominated committee of MPs;
- take away the Commission's power to propose criminal prosecutions for serious wrongdoing.
These proposals are the culmination of years of attacks by the Conservative & Unionist Party on the Electoral Commission. These changes will make the Commission answerable to the very people they are supposing to be investigating.
With the election watchdog effectively muzzled, we could see far more rule-breaking by political parties and campaigns moving forward. It's the kind of move you expect to see in a banana republic, not one of the world's oldest democracies.
The proposals to neuter the Electoral Commission join a growing list of proposals in the forthcoming bill. The areas of most concern include:
Dropping more proportional voting systems from English elections. Mayoral, GLA and Police Commissioner elections will all be held using First Past The Post.
Expensive mandatory photo ID at polling stations - despite 3.5 million people not having photo ID and there being no evidence of electoral fraud. This is a highly controversial policy, which has rightly been met with condemnation by many organisations and parliamentarians, and would see potentially millions of voters being disenfranchised at a general election. (While this author believes ID Cards can have a role in society, they have to be voluntary and people given control on what information is recorded on them and how they use them, not something that's up for discussion in this bill).
Ending the Fixed-term Parliaments Act - taking the power to call a General Election away from Parliament and giving it back to the Prime Minister.
The bill also proposes limits on the period for which a person can apply for a postal vote to three years - once these have elapsed, a voter will have to re-apply. (It is right that a person who has signed up to this is able to review their request as personal circumstances may have changed. People can change this at the moment anyway but implementing a review process should be welcomed.)
It also explicitly bans political campaigners from handling postal voting documents, by introducing a new criminal offence for this, and introduces new rules for the handing in of postal votes (e.g. limiting the number of postal votes an individual can hand in). (This is something to be welcomed, the local party will always direct people to the official website to obtain the registration forms and refuse to handle completed ones in any way.)
With regards to proxy voting, the bill limits the number of electors for whom a proxy can vote to four. The bill also simplifies and clarifies the electoral offence of undue influence, and introduces new requirements to enhance the accessibility of polling stations for voters with disabilities. (Again something the local party welcomes.)
The Elections Bill is a significant piece of legislation which, in some areas, will make considerable controversial changes to the conduct and administration of our elections, including forcing voters to have to prove who they are in order to vote by presenting photo ID at the polling station. Despite its stated ambitions, however, the bill does not tackle the fundamental issues with our electoral law and still leaves open the possibility for loopholes to be exploited.
Repeated calls have been made over the years, not just by the ERS and other civil society organisations and academics, but by the Law Commission and, most recently, the Committee on Standards in Public Life - to name but a few - to consolidate, simplify and modernise electoral law.
We can't continue tinkering around the edges - there's no point in complicating our Victorian election rules even further with new requirements when it is the foundations themselves than need rebuilding. Rather than rushing the Elections Bill through parliament, the government must take heed of the many recommendations that have been made with regards to our election law and ensure it is fit for the 21st century.