Elections Bill – parliamentary scrutiny begins
Having recently been introduced to parliament, the government’s Elections Bill proposes a number of changes to how elections are conducted, how campaigning may take place, and the oversight of the Electoral Commission. Read on for a brief explainer of some of those changes.
Proposed changes to casting a vote
The Bill includes proposals to require ID to be shown at polling stations for British general elections, local elections in England, and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. The government claims this proposed change is necessary to prevent fraudulent votes being cast. Those who do not have a form of photo ID (eg driver’s licence or passport) will be able to acquire a voter identification document from their council. Critics of the changes say that this will disproportionately affect voters who would not, typically, be Tory voters, and amounts to disenfranchisement.
A number of changes are proposed to postal votes as well. If the Bill passes in its current form, it will impose a limit of three years on a voters’ application for a postal vote, after which voters will need to reapply for a postal vote. Currently, postal votes need not be posted – they can be handed in at a polling station – and there are currently no limits on who may hand in a postal vote or how many postal votes they may hand in. The Bill would restrict those able to hand in a postal vote to the voter, their family member, or their designated carer – so not a neighbour or a friend. Individuals would also be limited in the number of postal votes they can hand in at a polling station – they may only hand in up to two postal votes in addition to their own. These limits would be completely new. Political parties and campaigners would be banned from handling completed postal votes and envelopes. New limits are also proposed for the number of people on whose behalf an individual may act as a proxy.
Accessibility at polling stations
The Bill includes further proposals which intend to make polling stations more accessible for people with disabilities. With the proposed changes, a voter with disabilities would be able to choose anyone over the age of 18 to accompany them to a polling station to help them to vote. At present, only a family member over the age of 18 or someone with the right to vote at the same election may act as a companion. Returning officers would also be required to take all reasonable steps to provide support to people with disabilities at polling stations, instead of providing the specific support currently prescribed by law.
The Bill includes changes to the rights of EU citizens to vote in and to stand for local elections in England and Northern Ireland, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and elections for police and crime commissioners in England and Wales.
EU citizens who were living in the UK before the end of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Period would continue to have the right to vote in and stand for elections. But those arriving after that date would have these rights only where the government has negotiated agreements with a given EU Member State to allow their citizens to vote in each other’s elections.
To date, these agreements have been made with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland. The changes would not affect citizens of Ireland or Commonwealth nations.
The Electoral Commission
The Bill contains changes to the oversight of the Electoral Commission. It introduces a ‘Strategy and Policy Statement’ to be approved by parliament, which will sets out guidance that the Electoral Commission must have regard to in carrying out its work. The Speaker’s Committee would also be given the power to examine whether the Electoral Commission is complying with that duty.
The Bill would also prevent the Electoral Commission from bringing criminal prosecutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Electoral Commission have published its views on the changes proposed by the Bill, including to the changes to the Electoral Commission itself.
Changes to campaigning, spending and donations
The government is proposing that digital electoral material must contain an imprint which states who paid and produced it, much like how physical leaflets are currently treated.
The Bill also includes a penalty for anyone found guilty of intimidating campaigners, elected representatives or candidates. Anyone found guilty may be banned from standing for elected office for five years.
In terms of spending, the government has included provision to clarify the rules relating to notional spending. Notional spending includes services or goods for the benefit of a campaign that are given to candidates at a discount or for free. The proposals would set out when notional spending must be reported by the candidate.
The Bill includes several new rules for non-party campaigners. A non-party campaigner is an organisation or individual that campaigns for an election but who don’t stand as a political party or candidate. The changes include clarifying that foreign entities cannot register as campaigners and that spending money to campaign from overseas would be illegal. Non-party campaigners spending over £10,000 in the period leading up to a general election would have to register with the Electoral Commission – this would bring the limit in England (currently £20,000) in line with the rest of the UK. Non-party campaigners would also be banned from registering as a political party.
The government have also proposed to remove the 15-year limit on the right to vote for British citizens living abroad. Any British citizen living abroad who previously had lived in the UK or had the right to vote in the UK would have the right to vote at parliamentary elections. Overseas voters would also only have to register to vote every three years, as opposed to the current requirement to register to vote each year.
The Bill also includes proposed changes to the offence of undue influence. This offence occurs when someone uses, or threatens to use, force or violence to make someone vote in a certain way or to not vote. The proposals give a broader definition of the offence and sets out the types of illegal behaviour which may be used to exert undue influence.
The Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons on 5 July 2021. Its second reading is due to take place on 7 September 2021 – that’s when the scrutiny of parliament will begin and we’ll get a sense of parliament’s appetite for these changes to election law. We will keep a close eye on the development of the Bill to see if and how these broad changes may impact how we vote in the future.
The government has published a summary fact sheet on the key changes proposed by the Bill.