The controversial Elections Bill returns to Parliament this week for its second reading. Ministers have claimed that the bill will “protect democracy”, but are facing heavy criticism over a number of its provisions. The bill would more strictly regulate financing of small campaign groups, remove barriers to donations from British citizens living abroad, make voter ID mandatory, and bring the Electoral Commission under the control of the Cabinet Office.
Opponents argue that the bill is trying to solve a non-existent problem: across all UK elections in 2019, there were just four convictions for electoral fraud.
An end to Electoral Commission’s impartiality?
While the voter ID requirement has received the most press, the bill contains a number of other provisions which opponents argue could threaten the integrity of elections.
Under the Elections Bill, the independent Electoral Commission, which oversees elections and political finance in the UK, would be brought under the control of the Cabinet Office, currently headed by Michael Gove.
It would also be stripped of the power to bring criminal prosecutions ‘to avoid imposing an undue burden on taxpayers’ funds’. The move comes as Boris Johnson faces a formal investigation from the Commission over the funding of his 11 Downing Street flat makeover.
A threat to charities and unions, but a boost to non-dom donors
Trade unions, charities, and civil society organisations have expressed deep concern that they could be effectively barred from campaigning by new rules for financing “joint campaigns”. The spending threshold at which groups would have to give notice to the Electoral Commission would be lowered to £10,000, and actions organised by multiple organisations would count towards the campaign spending of each group involved.
In an open letter, organisations including Save the Children, TUC and Liberty write: ‘The bill bestows unprecedented and unchecked power to government over elections. At a stroke, the minister could ban whole sections of civil society, including unions and charities, from engaging in elections either by campaigning or donating.’
And while things are being made harder for the UK’s small campaign groups, big donors living abroad could have it easier. All UK citizens living abroad would have votes for life (rather than the current 15 years after leaving the country), but they would also be allowed to fund political campaigning, which opponents fear could lead to “dark money” flowing unchecked into British politics.
Labour’s Shadow Minister for Democracy, Cat Smith, has been scathing of the proposed changes, commenting: “This is all about changing the rules to benefit the Conservative Party with overseas donors able to legally donate to bankroll their campaigns from their offshore tax havens or luxury second homes.”
The plans to require voter ID, set to cost £120m over the next decade, have come under the heaviest scrutiny. Campaigners and politicians, from both sides of the House, fear that the rule changes could disenfranchise a large portion of the population, and may even breach human rights law. The Government’s own analysis finds that around 2.1 million voters would be at risk of not being able to vote under the new law.
In its report on the bill, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed concern that: ‘The impact of the proposals may fall disproportionately on some groups with protected characteristics under human rights law’, including older people, disabled people, and BAME people, while campaign group The Electoral Reform Society warns that it ‘presents a significant risk to democratic access and equality’.
The bill has sparked anger from across the political spectrum. Senior Conservative MP David Davis called the voter ID proposals “an illogical and illiberal solution to a non-existent problem”, while Ruth Davidson, the former Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, put it more plainly, labelling the plans “total b*llocks”.
Labour plans to vote against the Elections Bill. On Friday, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner published a withering attack on the bill, calling it “a blatant attempt to rig democracy’ and “‘an assault on our hard-won rights”. The SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens have also indicated that they will vote against the bill.
Mixed reaction from East Anglia MPs
When contacted for comment, MP for Broadland Jerome Mayhew defended the bill, arguing that it will “put British citizens’ participation at the heart of democracy and support voters in making free and informed choices at elections”.
Norwich South MP Clive Lewis has called the plans for voter ID “a dangerous straw man that will do nothing to enhance our democracy but much to harm it.”
What else is in the bill?
The Elections Bill contains a range of other proposals.
EU citizens arriving in the UK after 31 December 2020 would be unable to vote in local elections in England and Northern Ireland, PCC elections in England and Wales, or elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, unless the Government has negotiated a specific agreement with an EU member state to allow reciprocal voting rights. Such agreements have so far been made with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland.
In an effort to “negate ‘postal vote harvesting’”, the bill bans political campaigners from handling postal votes. It also requires postal vote applications to be renewed every three years, and restricts to four the number of electors an individual can act as a proxy for. Out of those four, a minimum of two of the electors must be overseas or service electors.
Returning Officers at polling stations would have to consider a wider range of support for voters with disabilities in polling stations, and the bill removes restrictions on who can act as a ‘companion’ to support voters with disabilities.
The bill includes provisions to increase transparency in online campaigning: electronic material would require an imprint identifying who had published it, in an attempt to more tightly regulate political advertising on social media.
There are also attempts to clarify and strengthen the laws regarding undue influence, aimed at protecting electors, candidates and campaigners from intimidation and abuse.