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The Elections Bill will protect our democracy, ensuring that every voice matters

Today, the Elections Bill will be debated in the House of Commons, delivering on a manifesto commitment to strengthen the integrity of our elections

Chloe Smith
Tuesday 07 September 2021 10:54 BST
‘Voters must be confident that their vote is theirs alone’
‘Voters must be confident that their vote is theirs alone’ (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve had to adapt our behaviours. Many of us have learnt that just because something works well, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t work better. For example, I’ve realised I can stay fit by exercising from my living room and I can have a doctor’s appointment over the phone and still get the treatment I need.

Like most public services, our electoral services had to improvise, adapt to and overcome the challenges of the pandemic, keeping pace with the changing circumstances within our society.

Our democracy is precious. It’s the collective public voice shaping the world we all live in. But we mustn’t be complacent and if we are to protect generations to come, we must continuously adapt. Today, the Elections Bill will be debated in the House of Commons, delivering on a manifesto commitment to strengthen the integrity of our elections. It will update electoral law in order to ensure our democracy remains secure, transparent, fair and, crucially, fit for the modern age.

The recent parliamentary by-election in Batley and Spen saw disturbing scenes of intimidation of candidates and campaigners. Elsewhere, an MP has had to be moved to a safe house after death threats. The bill will toughen sanctions for those convicted of intimidating political candidates, campaigners and elected representatives – either in person or online – by barring perpetrators from running for elected office for a period of five years.

The bill will also strengthen action against intimidation of voters by improving and updating the offence of “undue influence” to prevent people from being coerced into giving up control over their vote. This type of malicious interference strikes at the very heart of our democracy. Digital campaigning material will also require a digital “imprint” to explicitly show who is behind it. This will enable voters to know exactly who is informing their political views online. And by scrapping the arbitrary 15 year limit on expats’ voting rights, we will make sure that British citizens and their voices are heard, no matter where they now live.

The bill protects our democracy in other ways too. It includes measures to reduce the potential for someone to steal another person’s vote by introducing sensible safeguards for postal and proxy voting. This will see party campaigners banned from handling postal votes, putting a stop to postal vote harvesting.

Currently, you need only say your name and address on the register to be given your ballot paper at the polling station. This system, which dates back to the Victorian age, can easily be faked, leaving the potential for a person to cast someone else’s vote. This kind of electoral fraud is difficult to identify but is not a victimless crime. We saw this happen in Tower Hamlets, where the 2014 mayoral election was declared void due to corrupt and illegal practices of coercion, intimidation and acts of electoral fraud committed by candidates and campaigners.

The Elections Bill will introduce photo identification requirements at the polling station, providing a reasonable and proportionate fix. The UK government recently published research showing that 98 per cent of electors already own one of the broad range of documents that will be accepted. If any elector doesn’t have a form of accepted identification, their local authority will be required, by law, to provide them with a free voter card.

Similar voter identification provisions have existed in Northern Ireland since 2003, helping to stop voter fraud without compromising the ability of people to vote, and should apply across the Union. After all, showing identification is something we do in all walks of life, all the time.

Voters must be confident that their vote is theirs alone. There is no margin for error when it comes to making sure our elections are secure, transparent, modern and fair. Measures within the Elections Bill are not simply a “nice to have”, but a necessity to protect our well respected democracy, where every voice matters.

Chloe Smith is minister of state for the constitution and devolution

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