A secure electoral system is a vital component of a healthy democracy. The Elections Act updates elections law and delivers on manifesto commitments to protect our democracy and ensure that it remains secure, transparent and fair. It includes provisions on, overseas electors, the voting rights of EU citizens, the accessibility of polls, identification to vote at polling stations and digital imprints as well as provisions aimed at tackling postal vote fraud, undue influence and intimidation at elections.
I understand the concerns raised about certain provisions in the Elections Act, including identification to Vote in Polling Stations. However, identification to vote has been backed by the Electoral Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which state that its absence is a security risk.
In Northern Ireland voters have been required to produce personal identification before voting in polling stations since 1985, with photographic identification being required since 2003 when introduced by the last Labour Government. Ministers at the time noted that “the Government have no intention of taking away people’s democratic right to vote. If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.” I should add that the Electoral Commission's 2021 Public Opinion tracker recorded that not a single Northern Ireland respondent reported: ‘I don’t have any identification / I would not be able to vote’.
The Electoral Commission has also commented that “since the introduction of photo ID in Northern Ireland there have been no reported cases of personation. Voters’ confidence that elections are well-run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations.”
Anyone without identification will be able to apply for a new free one – meaning that no voter will be disenfranchised. I believe that a secure electoral system is a vital component of a healthy democracy, and the public must have confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century.
Moreover, I am aware that, during the passage of the Elections Act, there were calls to introduce a citizens’ assembly to consider electoral policy. However, I would like to point out that the United Kingdom already has a citizens’ assembly – in the form of the House of Commons – which is made up of public representatives, directly selected by the British people, in every part of the country.
The Government has also introduced provisions to remove the 15-year limit on the right of overseas electors to vote through the Elections Act. Removing the limit was set out in the Conservative Party manifesto 2019 and I wholeheartedly support the approach set out in the Act.
EU citizens who were living in the UK before the end of the Transition Period on 31 December 2020 will also retain their voting and candidacy rights in local elections in England and Northern Ireland through the Elections Act. The rights of EU citizens who arrived after this point will be based on reciprocal agreements made with individual EU member states. Agreements are already in place with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland. The voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens living in Scotland and Wales are the responsibility of the devolved administrations in those countries.
In addition, a core aspect of our democracy is that electors should be able to cast their vote without undue external influence. Although it is already an offence to unduly influence a voter, the current outdated legislation requires modernisation. The Act updates electoral law so that undue influence covers a wider range of harms such as damage to reputation, spiritual pressure or financial loss. Deceiving an elector on the conduct of an election and intimidation at polling stations will also amount to undue influence, addressing concerns raised by the Election Court in the Tower Hamlets mayoralty case.
To ensure that elections are truly fair, they must be accessible to all demographics. This is why the Elections Act introduces powers to place a requirement on Returning Officers to consider a wide range of support for voters with disabilities at polling stations and remove restrictions on who can act as a companion.
The Elections Act also introduces powers to amend the law to make it clear that candidates only need to report benefits in kind which they have actually used, or which they or their election agent have authorised or encouraged someone else to use on the candidate’s behalf. Candidates will no longer need to fear being held responsible for benefits in kind of which they had no knowledge. This clarification has been extended to other campaigners who are subject to notional expenditure controls. Expenditure which promotes an individual candidature will continue to count towards a candidate’s own spending limit.
A new digital imprints regime will require political campaigners to show exactly who they are and on whose behalf they are promoting digital campaigning material. I can assure you that this has been balanced with ensuring free speech is not restricted and political campaigning is not discouraged. All paid-for political digital material will require an imprint, regardless of who it is promoted by, in order to show who produced and paid for the material. These measures will help bring digital campaigning in line with the requirements already placed on physical campaigning material.
There are no restrictions in the Elections Act on the ability of students to register to vote at their home address or term-time address. I would encourage any student to register in the constituency in which they are most likely to reside in order to ensure that they can exercise their right to vote.
Finally, the Elections Act, more broadly, responds to recommendations in Lord Pickles’ report into election fraud published in 2016 and builds upon long-term objectives set out in the Government’s wider Defending Democracy Programme. The changes it introduces alongside measures in the Online Safety Bill will protect our democracy from new and evolving threats and underpin the systems which support it.