On April 27th the Conservative government passed four of the most undemocratic and illiberal bills in the UK’s recent history: the Elections Bill, the Borders Bill, the Policing Bill, and the Judicial Review Bill. Each bill is overloaded with detail and it’s impossible to summarise them sufficiently within one blog post. Therefore, I will examine each bill individually and the first one I will be looking at in this post is The Elections Bill.
The bill is presented as providing “greater protection against voter fraud, more support for disabled people…and measures to prevent intimidation at the ballot box”. Out of a plethora of new measures in the legislation, the first that caught my eye was the removal of the time limit on overseas British citizens, previously registered or resident in the UK, from voting in UK parliamentary elections. There are 5.5 million expats living abroad, 700,000 of whom were prevented from voting in the 2019 election due to the limit on British citizens from voting, once they’ve lived abroad for 15 years. The new measure will now ensure that these 5.5 million voters will have ‘Votes for life’. This will add thousands of new voters to some swing seats in the next election, currently scheduled for May 2024. As 35% of the 5.5 million expats are aged 51 and over, and 60% of the Conservatives’ vote in the 2019 election came from the over-65s age group, it is a patent maneuver by the Conservatives to acquire more votes. This rule also allows for more donations from abroad, permitting “billionaire tax exiles to donate unlimited sums, perhaps many millions, to political parties”. When combined with the government’s rumoured plans to increase the maximum limit for party spending in a general election by up to 80%, they will will be going into the next election with more votes and a substantially increased campaign fund.
Also being replaced is the ‘Supplementary Vote’ system, with the ‘First Past the Post’ system for council and mayoral elections. In the Supplementary Vote system, voters could “express a first and second preference for their two preferred candidates”, but they did not have to mark a second preference if they didn’t have one. The winner was the candidate who obtained more than 50% of the vote, otherwise the two candidates with the most votes in the first round proceed to a second round. Then, the candidate with the most votes from that round wins overall and is elected. Being able to express a second preference allows voters a greater say over the final outcome of the election and fewer votes are wasted. Having been in place for 20 years, this system has enabled the likes of Labour mayors, Andy Burnham and Tracy Brabin, to be elected in Manchester and West Yorkshire respectively. In the ‘First Past the Post’ system the candidate with the most votes wins and only votes cast for the winning candidate matter, resulting in a greater number of wasted votes. This runs counter to the government’s claim that the new system will result in fewer wasted votes, claiming that there were hundreds of thousands of votes voided or wasted in last year’s London Mayoral elections. The government are trying to present the Supplementary Vote as a “complex system” which allows “a ‘loser’ candidate” to win by second preference, when it is actually a fairer and more democratic system than First Past the Post. Additionally, the Supplementary Vote system requires candidates to have a wider base of support than the First Past the Post system due to the ability for voters to have a second preference which gives them a greater say over the final outcome. Ultimately, switching to the First Past the Post system gives voters less of a say in our democratic processes and forces them to vote tactically by removing the ability to have a second preference.
One positive takeaway from this bill is the requirement of local councils to “provide voters with disabilities with specialist equipment to support them to vote”. According to the Electoral Commission, these accessibility measures include: tactile voting devices and large print versions of the ballot paper, allowing phones to be used in the polling booth for their magnifier, torch, and text-to-speech apps, and wheelchair accessible polling stations and polling booths. These measures are a good start but will only do so much to reassure disabled voters who may still be nervous about voting in person, especially after the pandemic. Now, onto some of the most damning measures in the legislation…
The most criticised measure included in this legislation is the requirement to show photographic identification when voting in person. This controversial move will supposedly “protect the integrity of democracy” by ensuring that the electoral system “remains secure, transparent and fair for generations to come”. But Lord Rennard, member of the House of Lords, describes photo ID as “an expensive solution to a non-existent problem”, since it will cost the government roughly £180m across the next ten years to implement and there have been only 88 allegations of in-person voter fraud from the three elections between 2015 and 2019, out of a total of 153 million votes cast. Only two of these allegations resulted in convictions, and another ended with a caution.
The recent local elections will mark the final time that voters in England won’t need to show ID at the polling station. Although the list of acceptable IDs is extensive, thousands of citizens will be disenfranchised as research found that low-income voters are “six times less likely to have a photo ID”. Acceptable IDs include a passport, driving license, Oyster 60+ cards, an Older Person’s Bus Pass and a Disabled Person’s Bus Pass. However, an estimated 2.1 million people currently lack the necessary identification, 11% of whom are unemployed and 8% are disabled. An amendment to the bill was put forward in the House of Lords that would make it easier for younger citizens to vote by adding national railcards, student ID cards and 18+ student Oyster cards to the list of valid documents. Alas, the amendment was rejected on the grounds that they are insufficient as photographic IDs. Since 67% of Conservative voters in the 2019 election were in the 70+ age bracket, younger votes are an irrelevance to them and this new requirement will make it harder for them to vote for Left-wing parties. This measure is about creating a barrier between voters and the electoral process, not preventing voter fraud.
According to the government website, “any voters who do not have an approved form of identification will be able to apply for a free, local Voter Card from their local authority”. However, this sounds simple in theory but there remains a significant barrier for the disabled, the elderly, and those with mental health issues as issues around transport to the issuing offices and when these offices will be open still require clarification. Additionally, applications for the free identification card will likely require a “respectable” person to co-sign the application. Worthy of note is the Electoral Commission’s confirmation that photo ID is not required for postal votes, and since a significant of number of voters abroad are over 50 years old, applying this measure to the Conservative’s core demographic would have been counter-productive.
Because of the Election Bill, the Cabinet Office now has the power to define what campaigning is and which groups can campaign or donate. The minister for the Cabinet Office will be able to criminalise groups and individuals for actions undertaken up to a year before an election that are deemed to be “campaigning”. These powers will only serve to “silence critics and weaken opposition to the government”. These powers will have the most damaging effect on the ability of organised civil society groups to have their voices heard and take collective action on issues they care about. The legislation clearly “favours single, monolithic parties over alliances of parties”, says David Howarth, the former electoral commissioner, as smaller parties will now be restricted from forming an electoral pact.
Finally, the bill has added a “Strategy and Policy Statement” for the Electoral Commission, which will increase parliamentary oversight over the commission. This gives politicians greater powers over the body that regulates their activities, enabling them to influence the commission’s decisions. The statement is believed to establish “government priorities on electoral matters and principles that the commission would be expected to follow”. This measure goes a step further by allowing the minister for the constitution to attend meetings of the Speaker’s Committee, the statutory body responsible for holding the Commission to account. Most concerning of all, however, is the removal of the commission’s power to bring criminal prosecutions against those who break electoral law relating to political parties and campaigns. This places limits on the commission’s independence as they will no longer be able to take politicians to court over crimes such as secret donations and illegal campaigning. David Howarth, former electoral commissioner, has described this unprecedented measure as being “something straight out of Putin’s playbook”.
In summary, the Elections Bill is a way for the Conservative party to manipulate the electoral process, virtually guaranteeing a win for themselves in the next election, while simultaneously crushing smaller parties.