Elections Bill: Has the government jumped the gun?

Jon Narcross, former Communications Officer

Posted on the 9th July 2021

Proposals to reform our election laws are like buses. You wait around ages for one and then two turn up at once.

Earlier this week the government published its long-awaited Elections Bill – legislation they claim will ‘protect our democracy’. But it could do the very opposite.

The main measure of the bill is the controversial plan to introduce mandatory voter ID – a move which would require voters to show photo ID before casting their ballot at a polling station.

It’s a policy that represents an unprecedented risk to democratic access and equality and could leave millions of voters unable to cast their ballot.

Possession of ID is not universal across the UK, with the government’s own figures suggesting that roughly 2.1 million people could be unable to vote in a general election due to not having recognisable photo ID.

Far from improving access to elections, the government’s own elections bill could leave millions shut out.

It’s no wonder that it’s attracted such widespread opposition from campaigners, charities, civil society and MPs, including big names from the government’s own benches including David Davis and former Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson.

The bill also came just days before a major report from the influential Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The committee, an independent body set up to advise the prime minister on upholding ethical standards of conduct across public life in England, released the report Regulating Election Finance following a review into election laws.

The standards watchdog, chaired by Lord Evans, called for greater clarity around digital campaign spending by political parties and better regulation and enforcement around party funding.

The ERS has long called for reform to our out-of-date election laws, and the CSPL’s report highlights many of the vulnerabilities in the current system. They rightly called for stronger regulation on political finance, which is riddled with loopholes. At present, the fines for breaking our election rules are capped at £20,000 – a figure that could be seen as the ‘cost of doing business’ for campaigns that spend millions.

The committee underlined the importance of the Electoral Commission in helping prevent and tackle wrongdoing – in contrast to the government’s attempts to shackle the independent regulator.

But by pre-empting the CSPL’s crucial findings, the government has jumped the gun. The Elections Bill will continue to leave many of the most troubling loopholes in our election regulations wide open – and fail to stem the flood of secretive donations shaping our politics.

Our election laws are woefully out of date with online campaigning, dark money and untraceable ads posing a real threat to our elections and the security of democracy in the UK.

Instead of fear-mongering over voter fraud and pursuing dangerous voter ID policies, ministers should tackle the real issues – and listen to the cross-party consensus on bringing our electoral law into the 21st century.

Read the ERS' Democracy in the Dark report

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