It’s now or never for modern democracy

By Laura Lock | 12 October 2021

The Elections Bill has reached Committee Stage. Much of the noise is around voter ID. But this is not a single-issue Bill. It cannot be considered in isolation, but must rather be looked at from the perspective of where we are as a democracy and how elections are currently run.

Any new electoral law teeters atop a pile of legislation dating back 149 years to the 1872 Ballot Act – laying out our tradition of ballot papers and pencils on strings.

Fundamental change came 38 years ago, with the Representation of the People Act 1983, laying the major framework for how elections are run today.

Since 1983, a further 29 pieces of primary legislation and a huge 68 pieces of secondary legislation have all impacted on how electoral registration and electoral administration is run. This includes the devolved nations, who continue to diverge from UK practice on a national level.

Electoral registration used to be based on where you lived in October. Now, anyone can apply to register to vote up to just 12 working days before any election. At the 2019 General Election, a record 650k people applied on final deadline day, a huge last-minute burden.

Postal voting on demand arrived in 2000, increasing numbers from 750,000 in 1983 to 8.2m in 2019. The administrative scale is massive, including regular refreshing of personal identifiers. There is pressure on printers to source paper and work to tight deadlines printing and collating ballot packs, and postal services have short timescales to deliver and return them.

The electoral landscape is more crowded than ever. New polls include police and crime commissioners (PCC), combined authority mayors, directly elected mayors, business improvement district ballots and increasingly popular neighbourhood planning referendums. Election teams also deal with corporate governance reviews, referendums and polling place reviews.

This frantic electoral landscape has built up as council resources have been ground down. Less funding and fewer people are available to run elections yet demands continue to grow. Some election teams are dealing with this change at the same time as local government reorganisation. We cannot stress enough that professionals running elections do not have limitless capacity.

How will the Elections Bill add to the current landscape? Returning officers, electoral registration officers and others need to plan for producing voter ID cards locally. Central finance is promised, but production must not impede election teams from core roles at busiest times.

Fifteen-hour-plus days on minimum wage, coupled with checking ID and potential conflict if electors are told they can’t vote, may increase already difficult polling station staff recruitment. We welcome the Bill’s measures on intimidation of candidates but call for this to be extended to cover polling station workers, electoral administrators and returning officers.

New proposals around handling postal votes also threaten to disenfranchise legitimate electors who aren’t aware of limits on the number of ballot packs an individual can hand in on behalf of their household or neighbours. Voter education will be vital.

It is right that candidates, political parties and campaigners be banned from handling postal votes. We believe this should go further and they should also stop farming absent vote applications which often arrive with electoral registration officers in bulk, sometimes incorrectly completed or after the deadline.

We are concerned the focus of increasing the franchise for British expatriates and citizens living overseas is on registration rather than how they cast their vote. Alternative voting methods need re-examining. Accepting registrations 12 working days before a poll, and postal vote applications 11 working days before gives those living overseas an unrealistic expectation of what returning officers can deliver.

A new Bill amendment will also see the supplementary vote system replaced by ‘first past the post’ for PCC, combined authority mayor and directly elected mayor polls. Clarity is needed on when proposed changes may be introduced, and all returning officers must be ready to adapt.

‘Snap’ UK General Elections may return via The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill. Some MPs also want to shorten the General Election timetable from 25 to 17 working days. We and Solace wrote an open letter on the matter to the then minister. Bottom line, it is unachievable, especially with the additional work and potential unintended consequences the Elections Bill may bring.

Going forward, returning officers and electoral registration officers have much to do to ensure change is not detrimental to democracy. Councils have plenty of experience delivering in challenging environments. The next UK Parliamentary General Election will be a huge task assuming the Elections Bill is passed.

The devil will be in the detail as secondary legislation is published and put into practice. There is hard work ahead, and an ever more urgent need for a new overarching Electoral Legislation Act for modern democracy.

Laura Lock is deputy chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators


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