The Elections Act recently passed into law is being criticised for undermining the independence of the Electoral Commission. This is the body that was set up in 2001 after legislation following the fifth Commission into standards in public life.
It is a body independent of Parliament with ten members representing the political parties, plus three independent members, one of which is the Chairman. Its current Chairman is James Pullinger, and he has acknowledged that the Election Commission’s independence from the government of the day is now threatened. Furthermore, all members of the current Commission, bar one conservative, published a letter pointing out that independence was threatened, he has acknowledged, but the conservatives used their majority in the Commons to push through their preferred version of this new law.
Elections in a democracy
Before getting into details of what is being disputed, it may be worth taking a broader view of how elections are supposed to be conducted in a democracy.
Here is a list of some of the key points:
- Candidate integrity
- electoral expenses controls
- impartial designation of electoral territory (constituencies, wards, local councils)
- Who has the right to vote
- How they are registered and identified
- Voting administration
- Protecting vulnerable voters from undue influence
- Administration of vote counting
- Publishing election results
- Prosecution of offenders under any of the above
UK Election Commission
The UK Election Commission since 2001 has been ultimately responsible for overseeing all of the above. The actual administration is decentralised to paid staff in each local council who do the work of voter registration and organising elections. There are also the many volunteers in the political parties, who both participate in the process and monitor that all the procedures are fair and conform. But many British people find the details of democracy so boring that they do not bother to belong to political parties or to vote.
Having lived in South Africa during the era of change from apartheid, I find this attitude inexplicable. Don’t people realise that in many countries of the world people die for democracy? And this is not just an abstract ideal but has to be worked at in detail. For the record, this is what I experienced in Durban during the first free elections with adult suffrage in 1994.
South African first free elections
First, to my surprise, I realised that even though a foreigner I would be allowed to vote as a permanent resident (this right was removed for later elections). This spurred me on to join a political party (the ANC) and volunteer to assist in the elections. Firstly this involved stacking posters on my verandah and getting them distributed to volunteers who would tie them to lamp-posts. Such was the hostility of some in the neighbourhood towards ANC participation in the election that my verandah was vandalised and then I was nearly wrongfully arrested by armed police when coming down off a ladder after tying up such a poster.
Volunteering in Election procedures
Then we had to get training as election party monitors and join a roster for a local polling station. My husband and I volunteered for the dawn shift at our local voting station. It was one of the best moments of my democratic life to walk past the early morning queue of first time voters to our observer stations ranged around the room. During that four hour stint, mostly we just observed the procedures. But we were allowed to help if a voter could not produce an ID. All South Africans are supposed to have photo ID cards, but some had not been able to get them in time. Most of these were illiterate newcomers from rural areas. We were allowed to talk with them and, if it helped, give them a lift to an emergency office which had opened during elections to supply ID cards to such people. As the elections were spread over three days, this would give them a chance of casting their vote.
On the last day of the vote the sealed boxes had to be transported to the central counting station for Durban. We observers checked the sealing process and even followed every movement of the process to load these boxes on to transport, follow them into the city centre and watch the unloading at the counting station. There we participated in a new roster of observing the counting. This was especially tedious as there were contests in Durban, first over who was to be paid for the job of counting (there had been a mix-up over recruiting) and then, more seriously, when boxes were opened from some stations which showed voting papers had been organised or controlled. The delay lasted about three days and nights, during which we observers still had to turn up for rosters, even for midnight shifts, to ensure that the other boxes and counted papers were still untampered with.
Mandela decides to enable peace
At the time, there had been a near civil war in parts of Kwa-Zuui Natal between ANC factions and those aligned to the Zulu hegemony of Inkatha. The tampered boxes favoured Inkatha. The matter had to be negotiated at top-level, with Nelson Mandela involved. He instructed us local ANC volunteers to withdraw our complaints so that elections could be finalised – in favour of Inkatha. This was a political decision to enable peace to break out in KZN, although the cost was to have a provincial government located inconveniently in rural KZN for the next 5 years or so.
KZN was still the most troubled province and our local government elections were delayed because of this. I was still an ANC organiser in central Durban for this. My most memorable moment was trying to organise the roster of observers for the various polling stations. The volunteers, all Black voters new to democratic processes, suddenly asked me what they would be paid for their stints. I had to explain that democracy is not just a government job: it is for all citizens to uphold, by whatever means we can. I was proud that, when I checked up on how the roster was working, all of these volunteers were at their posts.
Back to UK Election Act
I realise this story has interrupted an article on British democracy, but the purpose is to show how important it is to pay attention to the details of how democratic processes work. There are many countries of the world which claim to be democratic but where power-hungry individuals and factions have found ways to undermine these processes. So is the Tory government on the way to undermining democracy?
Firstly, to be fair, one must state one commendable feature of the new Election Act is that it will give votes to British citizens living overseas, providing they can prove they were registered as electors in a given constituency before their residence abroad. But warning – the system is not up and running ready yet as my daughter tried to re-register. Maybe they are waiting to align the software, as presumably they need to guard against double registration. There is also the confirmation that EU citizens resident in the UK will be allowed to vote in local government elections.
Photo ID required
Then there is a new requirement that voters have to produce a photo ID. Currently you don’t even need to take along your voter card, as the officers just tick off your name and address on their lists. This requirement for photo ID has been criticised as disenfranchising some ethnic minority or vulnerable voters who have not been able to organise such an ID. The Lords tried to put in an amendment to clarify the list of acceptable ID documents including some that are non photo, like credit card statements, but their list was struck out in the Commons with the words “adequate photo identification to be the most effective means of securing the integrity of the electoral system.” It will slow down the voting process, of course. Many critics have pointed out that voter fraud is very low in the UK, so this was just a solution to a non-problem.
There are also some new provisions for protecting vulnerable voters (the blind and those in care) from undue influence.
Criticism: abuses more likely
Now to turn to the criticism. It is noteworthy that the Election Commission used to be able to prosecute for financial irregularity in electoral expenses. Now this is removed and the police are to prosecute, but not given any extra resources to do so. Some say this will make it more likely that abuses such as which occurred with the Leave campaign can recur unpunished.
Finally, the most contentious part of this new law is that the Secretary of State must make a statement about “the strategic and policy priorities of Her Majesty’s government relating to elections, referendums and other matters in respect of which the Commission has functions.” The Secretary must consult the Commission and the Speaker’s Commission and the Levelling up Committee on the content of this statement. Note that the last two will be under the control of the majority government of the time. As members of the commission have pointed out, and the Lords and the judges, this new law threatens the independence of the Electoral Commission from the government.
So democracy is hollowed out from inside. We keep the shell and the name, but within it can perish as the vital props to the system are stripped out.