What is the Elections Bill? And why is it an issue?

Author:
Michela Palese, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 23rd July 2021

Earlier this month, the government published its long-awaited Elections Bill which 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.

The most significant change contained in the bill is the introduction of mandatory photo ID at the polling station, which we’ve discussed elsewhere. (For detailed information on the voter ID proposals, see our new in-depth briefing). 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.

But what other changes are there in the bill?

Administration and conduct of elections

In addition to the controversial voter ID plans, the Elections Bill includes other changes to the administration and conduct of elections.

The bill limits 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 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).

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.

Overseas electors and EU citizens

Another significant change is the repeal of the 15-year limit on overseas voters’ right to vote in UK parliamentary elections, with additional measures around the process for registering as an overseas voter and declaring one’s connection to a UK constituency. Extending the franchise for our elections is a positive move but the government must carefully consider the risks of removing restrictions on overseas electors – the consequence of which could threaten the integrity of our elections by allowing foreign political donations to flood our system.

At the same time, the bill amends voting and candidacy rights in non-devolved elections for EU citizens who have arrived in the UK since 1 January 2021. Only citizens of EU nations that have a bilateral agreement with the UK on voting rights will be able to vote in these elections.

The Electoral Commission

The Elections Bill contains proposals to amend the role of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, the statutory body responsible for holding the Commission to account which – for the first time ever – now has a single party majority on it.

The bill introduces a ‘Strategy and Policy Statement’ for the Electoral Commission, setting out the government’s priorities on electoral matters and principles under which the Commission is expected to operate, to be prepared by the Secretary of State and approved by parliament. The Speaker’s Committee will measure the Commission’s performance against the statement and hold it out accountable.

This controversial proposal has been criticised as an attempt to impinge upon the Commission’s independence, with the Commission itself stated that the proposal would ‘place a fetter on the Commission which would limit its activity’.

The bill also proposes to allow the Minister for the Constitution to attend the Speaker’s Committee meetings, and expressly removes the potential for the Commission to bring criminal prosecutions against those who break electoral law relating to parties and campaigners.

Regulation of election finance

The Elections Bill introduces five new measures around the regulation of expenditure, as has been highlighted in a previous blog post:

  1. A requirement for new political parties to declare assets and liabilities over £500 when they register with the Electoral Commission.
  2. A ban on simultaneously registering as a political party and a third party.
  3. A restriction of third-party campaigning, with only third parties registered with the Commission being able to campaign during regulated periods, regardless of how much they spend.
  4. Changes to third-party campaigner registration, with third parties spending over £10,000 being required to register to the Electoral Commission, to adhere to existing transparency requirements, and to indicate they are UK-based.
  5. Restrictions on joint campaigning/spending between political parties and third parties

The bill also changes the rules around notional spending (services or goods that are transferred or given to candidates, for free or at a discount) for candidates and election agents

Preventing candidate intimidation

The bill introduces a new penalty for anyone found guilty of intimidating candidates, campaigners or elected representatives, who could be banned from standing for elected office for five years.

Imprints for online political material

Finally, the bill extends the requirement for election material to include an imprint (stating who promoted and paid for content) to online political ads – a recommendation first made by the Electoral Commission in 2003 and long advocated by many.

A missed opportunity

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.

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