Electoral Commission chair calls out government on voter ID and finance loopholes

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 25th January 2024

In a recent, wide-ranging, interview with the Financial Times, John Pullinger, the chair of the Electoral Commission, expressed concerns about the government’s voter ID scheme and the threat to the Commission’s independence contained in the Elections Act, along with political finance loopholes.

Echoing many of the points we have made, Pullinger highlighted that the voter ID rules disproportionately affect some groups of people, making it easier for some people to vote than others.

Over 14,000 people were turned away due to voter ID

The Electoral Commission’s figures show that at least 14,000 people were prevented from casting their vote at last year’s local elections due to a lack of required ID. “The proportion was significantly higher among disabled people, unemployed people and some other groups,” said Pullinger.

There is now a very real risk we could see a far greater number turned away at the General Election, where those who are traditionally less engaged come out to vote. The Government should at the very least expand the types of ID permitted ahead of the next election.

This is a point that Pullinger agreed with, suggesting the government widen the list of accepted forms of ID.  During the passage of the bill we highlighted all the opportunities the government had to make the Bill less damaging. Pullinger highlighted attempts to broaden the list and how the government rejected them “I think readers will need to draw their own judgment about that” he told the Financial Times.

Widening the list would be an easy way to reduce the number of people rejected. But, ultimately, we would urge them to scrap this unnecessary and disproportionate policy altogether. Otherwise, we could see thousands of people turned away from casting their vote in a General Election, which would risk causing serious damage to trust in our democratic process.

Ministers setting the Electoral Commission’s strategy

The same legislation that brought in voter ID also ended the Electoral Commission’s strategy and policy independence. Ministers now write a strategy and policy statement on what they believe the commission’s priorities should be.

A strategy written by ministers of one party, voted through parliament by MPs of that party, does not seem like a strong basis for independence.

“We think this is a bad provision and should be repealed” Pullinger said, before making the clear assertion that “A statement of guidance is incompatible with the idea of an independent body”.

Campaign finance reform ignored

It’s not just the laws that have been passed that concerned the Electoral Commission, it’s the ones that haven’t been even looked at. We have long suffered from campaign finance regulations with glaring loopholes.

The fact that political parties aren’t subject to the same anti-money laundering regulations as businesses was described in the interview as a “troubling anomaly”, while the fact that companies registered in the UK can donate more than they make in the UK was also criticised.

Whilst making it harder to vote and reducing the independence of the Electoral Commission, the government is also ignoring the ways that dodgy money can flow into the whole system. This is an approach that is entirely head over tail – we should be building barriers to suspicious money, not the ballot box.

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