I n a democracy, it is vital that elections are both secure and open to all. Voters must trust the result and know that it has not been fraudulently obtained. Polls suggest that they do: public confidence in elections is the highest for a decade. There is room for improvement. Steps, recommended by civil society and academics, could be taken to make party finance more transparent, beef up the power of the regulator and expand the franchise. Yet with its election bill, the second reading of which begins on Tuesday, the government has ignored such advice. Its proposals will damage democracy and make it easier to buy influence.
The government proposes to make the Electoral Commission subservient to the Speaker’s committee, a parliamentary body on which the Tories have a majority, and have the minister for the constitution keep a hand on its tiller. This appears vindictive revenge on the commission because it dared to do its job. The Tories cannot forgive the regulator for investigating Vote Leave or Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat refurbishment. Ministers want to rob the commission of the power to prosecute, knowing perhaps how reluctant police are to investigate political corruption. This will shield wrongdoing.
There are good reasons to think that the purpose of the government’s bill is to stifle opposition and deter participation. Instead of waiting for the committee on standards in public life to report on regulation of election finance, ministers published their proposals. These will do nothing to prevent big donations, which the Tories rely on, from disfiguring politics. It is extremely concerning that ministers think they ought to be able to retroactively criminalise groups and individuals for acts undertaken up to one year before an election.
Perhaps the most egregious change is requiring voter identification. This has the potential to reduce, according to Cabinet Office data, the electorate by 2 million people who face the choice of getting a “voter card” or losing the ability to vote. Elections are unlikely to be made any more secure from the crime of “personation” than they already are. Since 2014 there have been just three convictions and nine cautions issued after allegations of voter fraud. The Conservatives say they are protecting democracy, but these plans make it harder for everyone to vote.
The Cabinet Office found that elderly, disabled and jobless people, and those without qualifications, were less likely to hold a photo ID than other groups. There’s a fear that the Tories are working to limit access to the polls for Labour-leaning groups. Yet the plans may backfire. The impact of the proposed new rules, according to one analysis, will be felt greatest in the north of England – with 7% of voters in the region without a form of acceptable ID compared with just 1% of Londoners. This could be significant in Tory marginals where northern voters who haven’t traditionally voted Conservative backed Mr Johnson. MPs face a choice: to fight for voting rights or fight against them. One can only hope – for democracy’s sake – that they choose the former rather than the latter.