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UK Elections Bill Threat to Independence of Electoral Commission

The Elections Bill proposed by the UK Tory Government is now progressing through the House of Lords. Deep concern has been voiced by many individuals and organisations about the implications of this Bill on our democratic rights.

On Monday 21st of February the Electoral Commission which overseas how elections across the UK are conducted, wrote to UK Tory Ministers ‘to reconsider those measures which seek to change the oversight arrangements of the Electoral Commission.’

‘If made law, these provisions will enable a government in the future to influence the Commission’s operational functions and decision-making. This includes its oversight and enforcement of the political finance regime, but also the advice and guidance it provides to electoral administrators, parties and campaigners, and its work on voter registration. The Statement would place a duty on the Commission to have regard to the government’s strategic and policy priorities and to help the government to meet those priorities. The Statement would also place a duty on the Commission to have regard to guidance issued by the Government relating to any of its functions.

‘It would thereby provide a mechanism, driven by the then governing party, enabling that party’s ministers to shape how electoral law is applied to them and their political competitors.

‘While the stated position of the current government is that it would not intend to use these powers to impact on the Commission’s independent oversight and regulation of the electoral system, no such assurances can be given about how the broad scope of these powers would be used over time.  ‘

And it concludes :’The Commission’s independent role in the electoral system must be clear for voters and campaigners to see, and preserved in electoral law. 

The Elections Bill contains measures which will affect:

  • elections and the way we vote
  • campaigning and the rules on campaign spending and funding
  • parliamentary oversight of the Electoral Commission

Voter identification will be required before you can vote. Despite the fact that there have been extremely few instances of voter fraud, the Bill includes this measure, instead of encouraging people to vote – as is their democratic right, this puts barriers in the way.

New measures on postal voting will also be introduced, despite the fact that this has been proven to be very popular, crucial at a time of a pandemic, and safe from fraud. ‘Those using a postal vote on a long-term basis in Great Britain to re-apply every 3 years.’

Scrapped is the 15 year limit on “expats’ “(British citizens living overseas) right to vote in UK Parliamentary elections and enfranchise British citizens overseas who were previously registered or resident in the UK. “As now, overseas electors will be entitled to register in respect of one UK address. Individuals will apply to register in respect of the last UK address at which they were registered, or, if they were never registered here, in respect of the UK last address at which they were resident.”

Because the UK left the EU “the basis for an automatic grant of voting and candidacy rights to European citizens no longer exists.” The changes apply to:

  • local elections in England and Northern Ireland
  • elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly
  • elections for Police and Crime Commissioner in England and Wales

Scotland is different.

The Scottish Parliament passed The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill last year.

It extended voting rights to all foreign nationals with leave to remain, including all those granted refugee status. It also extended candidacy rights to foreign nationals with indefinite leave to remain, and to those with pre-settled status.

The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill passed by a vote of 92 for, 27 against and 0 abstentions. The Bill became an Act on 1 April 2020.

This is a list of the MSPs who voted against the Scottish Elections Bill

Balfour, Jeremy (Lothian) (Con)
Ballantyne, Michelle (South Scotland) (Con)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Burnett, Alexander (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)
Cameron, Donald (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Carson, Finlay (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)
Chapman, Peter (North East Scotland) (Con)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Fraser, Murdo (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Golden, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Hamilton, Rachael (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)
Harris, Alison (Central Scotland) (Con)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Lockhart, Dean (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Mason, Tom (North East Scotland) (Con)
Mountain, Edward (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Mundell, Oliver (Dumfriesshire) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Tomkins, Adam (Glasgow) (Con)
Wells, Annie (Glasgow) (Con)
Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)

It was the first time in the history of the Scottish Parliament that a Bill has passed after requiring a super-majority, the support of two thirds of the 129 members elected.

Commenting at the time of the passing of the historic Bill Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs in the Scottish Government , Michael Russell said:

“This Bill, a historic piece of legislation, is an example of Scotland’s ability to take the lead in making progressive reforms, and one of which we should be proud.

“It also reflects the reality of modern Scotland: a nation committed to robustly meeting our duties to the treaties that safeguard our human rights, that welcomes those who seek to join our society, and gives a democratic voice to the most marginalised in our communities.

“EU and Commonwealth citizens already have the franchise, but it was critical that we recognised the enormous contribution of others by extending the right to vote.

“This extension is especially meaningful in the atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the UK Government’s plans for the immigration system – but instead of instilling insecurity and fear, this Government is using the powers that it has to send the message that Scotland is open, welcoming, and home to all those who so choose.

“This legislation also ensures that Scotland complies with the European Convention on Human Rights when it comes to the issue of prisoner voting, by making provision for the franchise to be extended to those serving a custodial sentence of 12 months or less.”

Fiona Grahame

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