Many people across the UK will have their chance to vote in the imminent May elections. But only days before, new laws have been rushed through parliament, with amendments and approval (Royal Assent) occuring within the space of less than 24 hours. This means that in future, elections will be very different.
The government has pushed through changes which it says will ensure greater protection against election fraud, target voter intimidation at the ballot box and achieve other goals. The new Elections Act will make a number of important changes to how some elections work in the UK.
While citizens need only state their name to vote in May, in future, everyone will be required to present voter ID before they are issued with a ballot paper at UK parliamentary and local elections in England.
This will be familiar to voters in Northern Ireland, where it has long been in place. The primary forms of identification requested in polling stations will be passport and driving licence. Scottish and Welsh local and parliamentary elections will be unaffected.
Many countries have compulsory voter ID requirements – but they also tend to have compulsory national identity cards. Strict voter ID is problematic in the UK because even the government’s own research suggests that 9% of the public do not have up-to-date and recognisable photographic ID.
Those less likely to have the required ID include people with severely limiting disabilities, the unemployed and those without educational qualifications. Trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) people are substantially less likely to have the requisite ID.
Pilots of voter ID at local elections in 2018 and 2019 also found that many citizens were unable to vote because they either lacked the necessary identification – or refused to provide it out of principle.
Those without a form of ID will be able to apply for a free ID card from their local authority, the government says. However, this is more red tape to navigate and my research shows that the more onerous the process, the less likely it is that people will vote.
A reasonable prediction is that 1.1 million people will not cast a vote at future parliamentary elections as a result of this reform, unless there is major outreach work. There was scant evidence of voter fraud to justify it. And we need more voters, not fewer.
Election commission independence
There is an international norm that electoral commissions should be established independent from government to oversee the electoral process. This is essential because those in government could be those in breach of the rules. The independent UK Electoral Commission was established in 2000, following party funding scandals and a call to modernise elections.
The Elections Act, however, now gives the government power to set a “strategy and policy statement” for the Electoral Commission. A parliamentary committee, which includes the government’s “election minister”, will then examine whether the commission is giving “due regard” to these instructions. It is already accountable to a part of parliament which is usually cross-party.
The commission will retain independence on specific cases, such as whether an individual party candidate is in breach of the rules. But the strategy and policy statement could steer responses to breaches in general. Or, as the commission itself has warned, the government could direct it to promote voter registration in areas where it has supporters – and worry less about areas where the opposition has greater support.
Who has the right to vote is also changing. The government has abolished the 15-year limitation on eligible British citizens living overseas to be registered to vote in relevant elections in the UK – a win for ex-pats. But with the other hand, it takes away the right to vote and standing of some EU citizens who live and pay taxes in the UK.
There are new complex regulations too. Those EU citizens who were living in the UK before January 2021 and hold lawful immigration status will retain their rights in some elections. Other EU citizens will only have such rights if the UK government negotiates a reciprocal deal with their home country.
This means we’re left with a patchwork quilt of confusing laws. And it is down to the discretion of the government of the day to make deals about who can or cannot vote.
Democracy takes a hit
It is easy to resort to hyperbole, but this is not the end of “free and fair elections”, as has been suggested. But the inclusiveness of elections has been undermined by the act and it weakens the UK’s claim to be a beacon of democracy, which is vitally important in the new cold-war international order.
More worrying has been the approach to making the new rules. A bombardment of reforms have been lumped together including further changes to postal voting and proxy voting, changes to local electoral systems and more. Some laws apply to some elections, others not.
This complexity and the simultaneous passing of other controversial bills (such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022) has created a white noise that has blinded effective parliamentary scrutiny and media coverage. And it comes at a time when there have been calls for to simplify electoral laws.
It has long been the tradition to develop electoral laws on the basis of consensus through a neutral speaker in parliament, who would preside over a committee following a request from the prime minister of the day.
Key parts of the act were opposed by the human rights and constitutional committees in parliament, the Electoral Commission, democracy groups, devolved governments and academics. They were also opposed by the Labour opposition and the House of Lords.
Amendments and compromises were put forward by the House of Lords but dismissed by the government, who instead whipped its troops in parliament to support the new laws – and caught Lords off guard in the final minutes of the parliamentary session.
Democracy is not just about elections, it is about listening and engaging with people. And that is the most undemocratic part of the new Elections Act.
Toby James has previously received funding from the Canadian SSHRC, AHRC, ESRC, Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, Electoral Commission, Nuffield Foundation, and the McDougall Trust. His current research is funded by the Canadian SSHRC and ESRC.