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The Elections Bill 2021-22 [Bill 138 of 2021-22] was introduced in the House of Commons on 5 July 2021. 

The Bill would make various changes to election law and the Explanatory Notes confirm these focus on the Government’s priorities “that UK elections remain secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent”.

Critics say this is a missed opportunity for an urgently needed wider reform of electoral law, which is accepted to be complex and fragmented.

The Bill has now had its second reading in the House of Lords. Progress of hte Bill can be followed in the Library briefing CBP 9421 Elections Bill 2021-22: Progress of the Bill

Voter ID

The most controversial measure in the Bill is that voters must show photo ID before getting a ballot paper in a polling station. This would affect UK parliamentary elections and local elections in England.

The Government argues this will improve the integrity of elections and prevent someone’s vote from being stolen – the electoral offence of personation. It proposes a broad range of photo ID will be allowed, including a free voter card available to those without any other form of ID.

Opponents argue personation is rare and resources would be better directed at improving registration rates. They also point out that certain groups are less likely to have photo ID and this would make it harder for some people to vote.

The Bill also makes other changes to the administration of elections aimed at improving the security of postal and proxy voting and to improve the accessibility of elections for disabled voters.

Franchise changes for overseas voters and EU citizens

The Bill makes two important changes to the eligibility to vote.

The first is for overseas voters –British citizens living overseas that are registered to vote in UK parliamentary elections. Currently, overseas voters can only register to vote for up to 15 years after they leave and if they were registered to vote before they left. The new rules will remove the time limit, introducing the so-called ‘votes for life’ Conservative manifesto pledge.

The second important change is for EU citizens living in the UK. Now the UK has left the EU, the Government is proposing to alter EU citizens’ right to vote in local elections in England and Northern Ireland.

EU citizens coming to live in the UK after 31 December 2020 will only be able to vote in local elections if the UK has a reciprocal voting agreement with their home country. Currently Spain, Portugal, Poland and Luxembourg have agreed reciprocal voting treaties. 

Scotland and Wales have already changed their local voting to allow all legally resident foreigners to vote in local and devolved elections.

A sanction for intimidation

The Bill introduces a new electoral sanction for those guilty of intimidating a candidate or campaigner. This follows concerns about increasing levels of abuse, threats or intimidation.

The sanction will apply if someone is convicted of one of the offences of an intimidatory nature that are listed in the Bill. This is only if the offence is committed because the victim was a candidate or campaigner. Someone convicted may be served a disqualification order that prevents them from standing for, being elected to, or holding certain elective offices for five years.

The Government says this would act as a deterrent and that those convicted should not be permitted to participate in the democratic process they tried to undermine.

Digital imprints on campaign material

An ‘imprint’ is information added to campaign material during an election or a referendum that tells potential voters about who produced the material.

Currently only printed campaign material requires an imprint, except in Scotland, where the rules have already been changed to include digital material too.

The Bill would extend imprints to digital campaign material. This will help voters know who is paying for what they see. It will also apply to some unpaid material if it is produced by a regulated party or campaigner. The imprint would be on the original material and so people sharing it online would not normally need to do anything.

The Electoral Commission’s strategic priorities

The Bill would give the Government power to set the Electoral Commission’s strategic priorities. It would also give the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission the power to assess compliance by the Commission.

Critics say this will risk the independence of the Commission.

The Bill also prohibits the Commission from being able to bring prosecutions itself. The Commission had wanted to develop a prosecutions role but the Government says this has never been agreed by Parliament.

Campaign finance and political parties

The Bill makes some changes to the registration requirements for political parties and third-party campaigners. These aim to tighten the rules that prevent foreign money being used in campaigning.

It also amends legislation relating to ‘notional expenditure’ – that is goods and services received by candidates at a discount. This follows a 2018 court ruling that led to concerns that candidates and their agents could be liable for spending they were unaware of or not involved in but were seen to have benefitted from.

The Conservative Party called for urgent clarification of notional expenditure in the legislation. In 2019, it said it hoped “there is scope for cross-party agreement on this matter, and a short, technical amendment to legislation in this Parliament.” The Labour Party said it “would support legislation that would serve to clarify Parliament’s intention as to the extent the election agent is responsible for expenditure by third party campaigns to support their candidates” as part of a wider programme of reform.

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