On Thursday 21 October 2021, Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat) is due to ask the Government, “what plans they have to consult on measures to enhance the integrity of electoral processes”.
How does the public feel about the UK’s electoral processes?
The Electoral Commission’s most recent survey of the UK public’s attitude to elections and democracy recorded the highest level of confidence in the way the UK’s elections are run since the measure’s inception in 2012. The survey, conducted in February 2021, found that 80% of those asked were confident that elections in the UK are well run. This compared to 71% in 2020. The survey further found that:
- 87% of those surveyed said that voting in general is safe from fraud and abuse, an increase of seven percentage points from 2020.
- 66% of those surveyed said a requirement to show ID at a polling station would make them more confident in the security of the voting system.
- Over 70% of those surveyed agreed that it should be clear how much had been spent promoting a political advert online.
- 35% of those surveyed had heard either a great deal or a fair amount about the Electoral Commission.
What has the Government said?
In the 2021 Queen’s Speech, the Government said that it would “strengthen and renew democracy and the constitution” by introducing legislation “to ensure the integrity of elections”. This built on its previous statements on this issue, most notably in the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto. This said a Conservative Government would “protect the integrity of our democracy, by introducing identification to vote at polling stations, stopping postal vote harvesting and measures to prevent any foreign interference in elections”.
The Pickles Report
In 2016, Sir Eric Pickles (now Lord Pickles), then the Government’s anti-corruption champion, published an independent review into preventing electoral fraud in the UK. The review was undertaken after an elected mayor was found guilty of electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets in 2014. In his review, Sir Eric outlined 50 recommendations to improve the security of the UK’s electoral system. These included implementing a pilot of voter ID at polling stations; action to tackle the links between electoral fraud and immigration fraud; and preventing so-called postal vote ‘harvesting’ by political activists.
The Elections Bill (previously referred to as the Electoral Integrity Bill) received first reading in the House of Commons on 5 July 2021. It is currently in committee stage in the House of Commons.
The Cabinet Office has published a summary of the measures in the bill. These include:
The introduction of voter identification.
- Changing requirements for postal and proxy voting, for example by banning political campaigners from handling postal votes.
- Clarifying the definition of ‘undue influence’.
- A requirement for returning officers to consider what support is available for voters with disabilities.
- Removing the 15-year limit on overseas electors’ right to vote in UK parliamentary elections.
- Changes to EU voting and candidacy rights of European citizens.
- Clarifying rules regarding notional expenditure of candidates (this is campaign spending that does not promote a particular candidate).
- Amending the political finance framework for elections.
- Introducing a new electoral sanction to protect candidates, campaigners and elected officeholders from intimidation.
- Introducing a new digital imprints regime for digital political material.
The Government has also set up the Electoral Integrity Programme, overseen by the Cabinet Office. This will support the implementation of the Elections Bill if passed, for example by developing digital voter cards for people who do not have another form of ID.
How did the Government consult on the Elections Bill?
In 2018 and 2019, the Electoral Commission ran voter ID pilots in selected areas across England. In these areas, people were required to show ID to vote in local government elections. Commenting on the 2018 pilot, which was held in five areas, the Electoral Commission said that “nearly everyone” who wanted to vote was able to do so and that there was no evidence that the turnout in those areas was significantly affected by the requirement to show ID. It further said that showing identification at polling stations “may have had some positive impact” on public confidence in the electoral process, but the impact was not consistent across all pilot areas. It recommended that further pilots take place.
A second pilot was carried out during the local elections held in 2019. In this pilot, 10 areas gathered evidence on using different forms of ID. The Electoral Commission concluded that a large majority of people already had access to an acceptable form of ID used during the pilot, but that some groups would find it more difficult than others to show ID at a polling station. Overall, it said that it could not draw definitive conclusions about how an ID requirement would work. However, it set out three for further consideration:
- Any ID requirement should deliver clear improvements to current security levels.
- Any ID requirement should ensure accessibility for all voters.
- Any ID requirement should realistically be deliverable, taking into account the resources required to administer it.
The explanatory notes to the Elections Bill also set out details of consultations undertaken by the previous Conservative Government that had informed the measures in the bill. These included:
- Transparency in digital campaigning: a consultation by the Cabinet Office held from August to November 2020.
- Protecting the debate: intimidation, influence and information: a consultation by the Cabinet Office held from July to October 2018.
- Access to elections: a consultation by the Cabinet Office held from September to November 2017.
- Intimidation in public life: a consultation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life held from July to September 2017.
What have commentators said?
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has raised concerns about the introduction of voter ID for UK parliamentary elections. In its report on the Elections Bill, the committee noted that 4% of registered voters, about 2.1 million people, do not currently have an acceptable form of identification. It called on the Government to find out whether requiring people to show ID to vote might decrease engagement with the electoral process, particularly among people from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. It also asked the Government to clearly set out its reasons for introducing this requirement when reported cases of fraud at polling stations were low.
The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has also criticised the provisions in the Elections Bill related to voter identification. It has said that across the 2018 and 2019 voter ID pilots, 1,000 people were turned away from voting. It also highlighted the cost of implementing such requirements, stating that the pilots alone cost £3.6m. The ERS has instead called for the introduction of automatic voter registration and for the Government to replace its current first-past-the-post electoral system with proportional representation. It said that voters already think the UK’s system is safe and secure but not that it is fair.
Commenting on the provisions of the bill related to notional expenditure and ‘third parties’, Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science and Director of Public Policy at Brunel University London, has argued that more thought is required to ensure the proposals do not create greater problems than currently exist. For example, on notional expenditure, Professor Fisher welcomed the intent of the measures to improve transparency but recommended that the bill go further by requiring a political party to nominate a responsible person to authorise spending by the party or by a candidate.
- House of Commons Library, Voter ID, 3 September 2021
- House of Commons Library, Regulation of Election Campaign Finances, 7 July 2021
- Toby Helm, ‘Elections Bill is a “power grab to rig polls in favour of Tories”’, Guardian, 5 September 2021
- BBC News, ‘New Elections Bill to “protect democracy”, says Government’, 5 July 2021
- Robert Wright and Sebastian Payne, ‘UK’s voter ID plan “an expensive distraction”’, Financial Times (£), 13 May 2021
Image by John Mounsey from Pixabay.