Democracy is about empowering people. It’s a collective public choice, made of millions of voices. But what happens if one person’s voice can be stifled, silenced or even stolen? Why should a criminal have two votes, having stolen one from someone else?
Currently, you need only say your name and address at the polling station to vote. This Victorian test can easily be faked, leaving the potential for a person to cast someone else’s vote. This kind of fraud is difficult to identify but it is not a victimless crime.
It happened this year, in the Holyrood elections, where a would-be voter in Edinburgh Northern and Leith tried to vote, only to be stopped because someone had already cast a ballot in their name. This victim had their voice stolen.
To prevent these crimes and strengthen the integrity of our elections, we are bringing forward new legislation to update electoral law, making sure our democracy remains secure, fair, modern and transparent, and tomorrow, the Elections Bill will be debated in Parliament.
The Elections Bill will introduce photo identification at the polling station in General Elections, providing a reasonable and proportionate fix and bringing the rest of the UK in line with Northern Ireland where these sensible checks have existed since 2003, helping to stop voter fraud without compromising someone’s ability to vote.
After all, identifying ourselves is something we do in most walks of life. The UK Government recently published research showing 98% 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.
The Bill protects our democracy in other ways too. I always welcome robust political debate. But abuse and intimidation is not acceptable. An SNP MP was recently forced into a safe house after receiving death threats online, whilst a Scottish Conservative councillor had their car set alight. Intimidation is an issue which affects all parties, and hurts voters too.
The Bill will toughen sanctions for those convicted of intimidating political candidates, campaigners and representatives – either in person or online – by barring perpetrators from running for elected office for five years.
New laws will also strengthen action against intimidation of voters, by updating the offence of ‘undue influence’ in electoral law, to prevent people from being coerced into giving up control over their vote.
We will also strengthen political finance rules to ensure that only those who have a genuine interest and a right to be involved in our elections can spend money campaigning in them, and that spending limits cannot be unfairly expanded.
Devolution means devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can make different arrangements.
Measures in the Bill will apply to some elections and not others. But we’re working together to make sure changes will be clear and practical. The pandemic has proved we are at our best when we work together.
The Elections Bill will keep our elections secure, fair and transparent and will ensure democracy across the UK continues to thrive.
Chloe Smith MP is the UK Government Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution