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Article United Kingdom: Bill to Modernize Electoral Process Progresses Through Parliament

The Elections Bill, introduced on July 5, 2021, continues to progress through Parliament in the United Kingdom (U.K.) and is currently in the committee stage. If enacted, the bill will introduce several significant changes to the electoral law of the U.K., including voting procedures, campaign financing, and parliamentary oversight of the Electoral Commission, which is “the independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK … to promote public confidence in the democratic process and ensure its integrity.” Current electoral law has been “accepted to be complex and fragmented,” and the aim of the bill is to “to ensure that UK elections remain secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent.”

Changes to Voting Procedures

One of the most controversial provisions of the Election Bill would require voters in parliamentary elections and local elections in England to show an approved form of photographic identification before receiving their ballot paper to vote in person at a polling station. Acceptable documents would include driver’s licenses, passports, travel passes, and photo card parking permits. Individuals who do not have an approved form of identification would be able to apply to their local authority to obtain a free Voter Card. The Electoral Commission has stated that, while there are “very low levels of proven electoral fraud,” this requirement would help improve public confidence in the voting system and would bring England, Wales, and Scotland into line with Northern Ireland, where voters have been required to show identification since 1985 and photo identification since 2003

The bill would require postal voters to reapply for a postal vote every three years to ensure their information is kept up to date. The bill would also prohibit political campaigners from handling postal votes and limit the number of postal votes a person may hand in on behalf of others to prevent “postal vote harvesting.” The Electoral Commission has expressed concern that limiting who can hand in postal votes and the number of votes they can hand in could create barriers for some voters and add “complex new procedures for polling station staff.” 

To “improve the integrity of the absent vote process by reducing the opportunity for individuals to exploit the process and steal votes,” the bill would limit the number of people a person may ask to act as proxy voter to four and extend the secrecy of the ballot requirements in polling stations to absentee voting. The bill would also remove the 15-year limit on voting rights for overseas British citizens who were previously resident or registered to vote in the U.K. and update the registration procedure for these voters.

Offenses and Sanctions

To address concerns that the offense of undue influence is not sufficiently clear, the bill would clarify and update the offense. If enacted, the term “undue influence” would have a broader definition to “encompass[ ] a wide range of harms, such as physical violence, damage to a person’s property or reputation, undue spiritual pressure and injury, or inflicting financial loss, … [as well as the] intimidation of electors [voters]. …” Undue influence would also cover those who deceive a voter about how an election or referendum was conducted or administered.

A new electoral sanction would be introduced by the bill that would prohibit persons from standing for, being elected to, or holding an elected office for a five-year period after they have been convicted of intimidating a candidate, future candidate, campaigner, or elected officeholder.

Campaign Financing and Third-Party Campaigners

The bill would tighten campaign financing laws to ensure fairness and transparency during elections and increase controls against foreign spending. It would limit third-party campaigners to U.K.-based residents, entities, and registered overseas voters, and would require those who spend over 10,000 pounds (£) (about US$14,000) across the U.K. to register with the Electoral Commission. The aim of this provision is to restrict third-party campaigning during the regulated period to groups eligible to register, making it illegal for foreign entities or individuals to register as a campaigner or spend money to campaign from overseas. It would encompass those spending below the registration threshold and “remove the scope for spending by ineligible foreign third-party campaigners.”

A loophole that permits campaigners to register as both a political party and third-party campaigner to utilize two spending limits would be closed by prohibiting entities from being on both registers at the same time. To provide earlier public scrutiny of the finances of political parties, new parties would have to submit an asset and liabilities declaration when they registered with the Electoral Commission if they had more than £500 (about US$700) in donations, income, loans, or debts.  

Digital Campaigning

Digital imprints would have to be displayed on all paid-for digital political materials and contain the name and address of who paid for the material and whether they are promoting it for someone else. Certain campaigners would also be required to include a digital imprint on their digital material if it constituted digital election material, referendum material, or recall petition material.

Accessibility for Disabled Voters

The bill aims to improve accessibility for disabled voters. It would remove restrictions, other than the requirement that the person be over the age of 18, on who may act as a companion to support a voter with disabilities at the polls and would obligate Returning Officers to consider support for voters with disabilities in polling stations.

EU Voters and Candidates

Because the U.K. has left the European Union (EU), the Elections Bill seeks to remove the voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens in certain elections. For these individuals to be eligible to vote, they must meet the requirements that apply to all voters and must also be a citizen of an EU member state that the U.K. has a voting rights agreement with, or have been continuously resident in the U.K. or Crown Dependencies before the end of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Period (up to January 31, 2021). The U.K. currently has voting rights agreements with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, and Poland.

Accountability of the Electoral Commission

The bill would improve the accountability of the Electoral Commission to Parliament by introducing a Strategy and Policy Statement, which must be approved by the U.K. Parliament using the affirmative vote procedure. The statement would provide strategic direction and guidance to the Electoral Commission over how they must discharge their functions, and the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission would be required to examine the Electoral Commission’s compliance with the duty to consider the Strategy and Policy Statement.

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Feikert-Ahalt, Clare. United Kingdom: Bill to Modernize Electoral Process Progresses Through Parliament. 2021. Web Page.

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