Why the Government’s Elections Bill Is Too Important to Be Ignored

Luke Williams outlines the measures being introduced by the government in the Elections Bill, and the threat the bill poses to democratic engagement.

In the United States last week, US Senate Democrats embarked on a long-shot mission to pass a voting rights bill, which itself is an attempt to expand access to the ballot and pre-empt various voter suppression bills passed by State-level Republicans. However, the effort ultimately failed, due to the US Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires a supermajority of votes to end debate and move to a formal vote on a bill. Democrats don’t have the votes to overcome a filibuster, nor to change the Senate rules.

The irony isn’t lost on me that on our side of the pond, we have a completely different story unfolding. Conservative MPs are ramming through their own voting bill on party lines, named quite simply, the Elections Bill. But instead of enhancing the right to vote like the Senate Democrats’ bill, the Elections Bill contains some eerie provisions that undermine our democratic system and access to the ballot.

A key provision of the Bill is one that would require a voter ID to vote in UK elections. It seems reasonable when you first learn about it, but further examination reveals a key fact - it ultimately seeks to fix a problem that doesn’t even exist. In the UK a cabinet office report estimated that around two million voters would lack the required ID to vote. Due to this, a large number of voters who work hard, pay their taxes, and play by the rules could soon find themselves involuntarily excluded from voting.

It comes into perspective when we consider that in all UK elections in 2019, only 6 people were convicted of electoral fraud according to the government’s own data. Of these 6, voter ID would not have prevented most of these offenses. Yet in a voter ID trial, held in 2019 in ten local authorities, 2000 people were turned away due to a lack of valid ID, and around 750 of those didn’t return to vote later. A quick run-through of the maths indicates that more than one hundred times more people were disenfranchised in the small-scale trial than committed voter fraud in every election held across the UK in 2019. Now imagine momentarily that this isn’t a trial, but something which is implemented nationwide, it’s clear that a phenomenal amount of people could be prevented from voting - all to stop a number of electoral fraud cases we can count on one hand. It is completely indefensible on just about every level.

But while this is ultimately the most salient provision in the bill, the legislation also contains a number of worrisome provisions surrounding the electoral commission. In all developed and democratic countries, an independent elections regulator is of paramount importance. The pages of the history of our world are littered with examples in countries such as Venezuela, of what happens when this sacrosanct independence is whittled away. The Elections Bill begins a process of gutting the independence and powers of the UK Electoral Commission. 

The Government will make changes to allow Ministers to set out a ‘Strategy and Policy Statement’ Document, that will outline Government priorities in relation to the work of the Electoral Commission. It should be noted that the Electoral Commission will be expected to adhere to this document, which ultimately will lead to the curbing of its independence. But perhaps more significantly, in what seems like another phase of a multi-pronged approach to gut the agency cynically and methodically. The Electoral Commission will no longer be able to bring prosecutions against parties and campaigners for violations of electoral law, forever changing the role of the commission.

But sadly it’s not just the regulation of elections, or the requirement to participate in elections that is being altered. The voting system itself is being meddled with in this Bill for certain elections. Currently, the supplementary voting system, allowing people to rank two candidates, is in place for offices such as directly elected Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners. But the legislation alters the system used in these elections to first past the post, making them less democratic and reducing the political options that voters have. The SV system has been a success since it’s implementation, allowing democracy to flourish and the voters to elect the candidate most suited to them in competitive races. The only reasonable conclusion that can be reached regarding the motives behind this change are partisan. 

It should be noted that there are actually a number of positive provisions in this bill, and there are some more negative ones that I have not even had the chance to mention. But it is clear that with some of the major changes this bill will bring, the bad unfortunately will outweigh the good. 

The passage of a number of the key provisions of this bill are illogical, anti-democratic and put us in danger of embarking on a path none of us want to go down. It should be a piece of legislation we are all aware of, and despite all of the drama in Parliament as of late, it must certainly not be a bill that gets lost in the latest fast-moving news cycle. 

Luke Williams is a 20-year-old Labour Member and Politics Student at the University of Liverpool. He is also a member of the governing Council of UK pressure group Unlock Democracy, and tweets at @Luke_Williams26.

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