28 April 2022 saw the Royal Assent given to the Elections Act. The debate, the protests, the submissions pointing out the defects and dangers in the bill – they’re all over, and the bill has become law. Here are some of the things the Act will do for (or rather, against) British democracy.
1. Mayoral and PCC elections will now be held under FPTP
The Supplementary Vote (SV) system meant that voters who backed a small party, or a candidate unlikely to win, could vote for their preferred candidate, using their second vote for a candidate who had a reasonable chance of winning. SV isn’t a perfect voting system, but it did give people the opportunity to express their preferences honestly and for many more votes to count. It also provided an incentive for parties and candidates to campaign with a degree of politeness and integrity, because of the importance of winning second votes. The move to FPTP takes us back to the bad old days of wasted votes, tactical voting, and political mud-slinging.
2. Extending the right to vote for Brits living overseas
The 15-year limit on the right to vote for British citizens living abroad has been abolished, and they will only have to re-register every three years. In itself this doesn’t seem like a great threat to democracy – until you consider that they will also have the right to make political donations. Given the degree of political interference from overseas interests that we’ve seen over the past decade, we probably should be very worried indeed.
3. Curbs to the powers of the Electoral Commission
Until now, one of the jobs of the Electoral Commission has been to act as an independent body, to oversee electoral processes, to ensure that all participants are playing by the rules, and to prosecute individuals or institutions that break the law. The Elections Act removes the independence of the Electoral Commission, making it subject to government “guidance”. In effect, the government has given itself and its successors the right to mark their own electoral homework.
4. The requirement for voter ID
This is the section of the Act that has drawn the most attention. The need for voter ID has been questioned – the move was ostensibly to reduce voter fraud, but in fact the number of alleged instances of fraud has historically been tiny. In-person voter fraud would be very difficult to commit on a large scale, owing to the need to reliably identify enough people who were entitled to vote but not going to vote, and then impersonating these people without being detected. The cost will be huge – the government’s own estimate is in the region of £180 million per decade. Queues at polling stations will be longer – it’s not known how many potential voters will just give up and go home, but there certainly won’t be a positive effect on the number of votes cast. And, of course, turnout will be most threatened among groups whose political engagement is already most fragile: the young (whose youth travel passes and student ID cards will not be accepted at polling stations), and the economically disadvantaged (who are most likely to have no photo ID).