The Elections Act was very controversial when it was passed in 2022. There was criticism of the new requirement for voter ID and, for the plan to allow voting, and donations, by UK citizens who have not lived in the UK for 15 years. But one important provision drew less attention. That was to require the Electoral Commission, for the first time, to ‘have regard to’ a government statement of priorities for its work.
It is this last provision which Parliament is being asked to approve now: by the House of Commons this week, and the House of Lords before April.
In 2022, the Act was widely criticised as improper interference in our democratic processes, but the government has gone ahead. In response, John Pullinger, Chair of the Electoral Commission, has published a stark criticism of the changes, raising serious questions about the health of UK democracy.
Electoral Commission: independent guardian or puppet on a string?
A key issue is the claim that the Act undermines the independence of the Electoral Commission itself. At present, the Commission decides its own strategic and policy priorities. It reports to the Speaker’s Committee, acting on behalf of Parliament, but is not subject to direction from a Minister. Pullinger argues that this is a vital safeguard for an independent electoral watchdog.
However, the plan is to replace this with a system where government ministers direct the Commission in a ‘Statement of Priorities’. This raises serious questions about the Commission’s ability to function as an impartial umpire in the electoral arena. If a Minister from the party holding a Parliamentary majority can dictate the priorities of the Commission, how can it be genuinely independent, and uphold the principles of fairness and transparency?
Voter ID: A barrier or a bulwark?
The changes to the Electoral Commission are the immediate issue, but others have not gone away. The government claimed that it’s mandatory voter ID scheme safeguards against electoral fraud, so bolstering public confidence in the system, despite there being almost no evidence of voter personation in recent elections. Pullinger highlights how the scheme disproportionately impacts marginalized groups, such as the disabled and unemployed, who may lack readily accepted forms of ID. Over 14,000 individuals are known to have been turned away from voting in last year’s local elections due to this requirement. But this is probably an underestimate, since many polling stations employed staff to turn away people without ID, before they ever entered the polling station to be recorded. Pullinger warns that the number could be much higher during the coming General Election, potentially disenfranchising thousands and further eroding trust in the democratic process.
The Electoral Commission has proposed expanding the list of acceptable ID documents. Accepting an Older Person’s Bus Pass, but rejecting a Student ID card would appear to be a deliberate attempt to bias the system in favour of older voters. Yet, the government’s reluctance to budge on this issue raises concerns about their true priorities (and perhaps the effectiveness of the Commission). Pullinger asks whether voter ID is truly about curbing fraud, or if it is a veiled attempt to suppress turnout among traditionally less engaged demographics who tend to lean towards opposition parties?
Campaign Finance: A Playground for “Dodgy Money”?
While the voter ID scheme and the Commission’s compromised independence dominate headlines, the implications for increased involvement of foreign finances in British elections are equally serious. Giving voting rights to British citizens who have not lived here for 15 years, allows people with only tenuous connections to the UK to donate large sums to UK parties. Pullinger points to loopholes in existing regulations that allow other ways for ‘dodgy money’ to filter into the political system. Political parties, unlike businesses, remain exempt from anti-money laundering regulations, creating a fertile breeding ground for illicit funds to influence elections. Additionally, the current system allows UK-registered companies to donate more than their domestic earnings, opening the door for foreign influence meddling.
These loopholes, Pullinger argues, represent a far greater threat to electoral integrity than the vanishingly small threat of voter fraud. By focusing on erecting barriers at the ballot box, while turning a blind eye to the financial backdoors, the government is adopting a dangerously misguided approach. Instead of making it harder for people to exercise their democratic right to vote, efforts should be directed towards plugging the holes in campaign finance regulations and ensuring that elections are not swayed by the invisible hand of special interests.
A Crossroads for British Democracy
Pullinger paints a sobering picture of the challenges facing UK democracy. He warns of the dangers of political interference, disenfranchisement, and undue financial influence. All of these are issues which the independent Commission has warned about, but the government has proved resistant to acting on their concerns. It is hardly likely that they will pay more attention under the new regime.
The motion to approve the provision for the Statement of Priorities goes before the Commons on 31 January. It becomes law if it also passes the Lords within 40 days. Getting support from their Lordships may prove a bigger test, but not necessarily one which the government will fail. Whether this leaves our democracy stronger is very much in doubt.