Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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UK electoral law poses "serious and unnecessary risks"

Current UK electoral law poses serious and unnecessary risks for everybody involved, concludes Electoral Law: the urgent need for reform, a report published recently (01 November 2019) by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). Candidates, agents, parties, administrators and voters must navigate a thicket of complicated and sometimes contradictory legislation ahead of the December election.

An interim report published by the Law Commission in 2016 made recommendations designed to consolidate electoral law and make it fit for purpose, but to date little progress has been made – prompting PACAC’s inquiry. The Law Commission is due to publish its full report in 2020, and PACAC urges the Government to make this the basis for future reforms. 

In its report, PACAC underlines the urgent need to of simplify, update and consolidate current legislation, and with the country set to go to the polls in December, its conclusions should be treated as a priority by whoever forms the next Government.

Chair's comments

Commenting on the report, Chair of the Committee Sir Bernard Jenkin MP said:

“As voters prepare to head to the polls, they ought to do so with full confidence that the system underpinning our democracy is robust, fit for purpose, and properly safeguarded against attempts to subvert it.

“Similarly, those involved in the administration of elections, those running for office and those assisting their candidacies are entitled to clarity about what is expected of them.

“PACAC’s report concludes that the sprawling, complicated nature of current electoral law makes achieving such confidence and clarity an uphill task at best. The Law Commission’s 2016 recommendations, if implemented, would have gone a long way towards addressing various shortcomings.  It is essential that whatever the outcome of the election in December, consultation and legislation on electoral law reform must follow the Law Commission’s 2020 review without delay.”

Key conclusions and recommendations

The urgency of updating electoral law

The report concludes that the current system is so complicated that even professional party compliance teams find it difficult to adhere to with complete confidence – as illustrated in the report by an example from Plymouth, where approximately 300 voters were removed from the electoral register correctly, but without their knowledge. Those difficulties are only compounded for those with less resources, such as independent candidates. The Government should therefore seek a consensus on how to clarify the law on matters such as notional spending and then legislate without delay.

Reforming the election petition system

Electoral administrators face a similarly bewildering series of risks and difficulties, as do those seeking to challenge elections via the election petition system. The report highlights one such example from Tower Hamlets, where successful petitioners were faced with considerable costs. The election petition process should therefore be incorporated into the modern court system and complimented by a new centralised complaint mechanism.

Reducing fraud and improving voter confidence

The report advises that the Government exercise extreme caution when deciding whether to proceed with introducing voter ID requirements, given the lack of robust evidence as to their value for money. While voter confidence is essential, more pilot studies are needed to determine whether voter ID requirements are an effective method of winning it.  

Intimidation of candidates and campaigners

The current Government has announced plans to introduce an electoral offence of intimidation against candidates or campaigners during an electoral period, which is welcomed in the report. PACAC recommends that the Law Commissions’ final report consider the issue further.

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