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Chloe Smith: Everyone must commit to protect our democracy

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The past few years have shown the value and significance of our democratic processes, underlining the importance of sustaining a flourishing democracy.

As minister for the constitution, I believe that our democracy makes a real difference to individual lives, and that each individual makes a real difference to our democracy.

The electoral community plays an integral role in helping ensure these voices are heard. It is local authority workers who cultivate trusting relationships with their citizens and civil society groups. In turn, civil society groups are crucial in engaging people and driving up democratic participation.

Our elections run smoothly because of the hard work of electoral registration officers and returning officers, which is enhanced through strong partnerships with bodies such as the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace).

It is thanks to all those involved in this process that there are now record levels of electors registering to vote. As I am highlighting at the Association of Electoral Administrators conference today, this is remarkable collective achievement which shows the value in working together.

This theme of collaboration underpinned government’s Every Voice Matters democratic engagement plan published in December 2017. It was the first time the government published a strategy on tackling democratic exclusion among groups who are less likely to be on the electoral register.

As we now publish our update one year on, I believe the key to further progress lies in collective committing to respect, protect and promote our democracy. Government has a unique role to play to allow this to happen, but we cannot achieve this alone.

It’s up to everyone to respect our democracy by fostering a respectful culture, within our own organisations and in how we engage with each other. We are sadly seeing those involved in public life being subject to unprecedented intimidation and abuse, which is why government is consulting on new ways to tackle this worrying trend.

I do not take lightly the fact that respect for democracy is also rooted in the public having confidence that our processes and systems are secure. We are working to stamp out voter fraud, because taking away someone’s vote is taking away their voice.

I believe we can tackle this problem with a solution so simple it is already used by people every day: showing ID at the polling station. Yet in protecting our democracy, too, we need the support of others as we implement this common sense approach.

In last May’s pilots the overwhelming majority of people were able to cast their vote without any problems. A major ingredient of this success was the work of local authorities, whose awareness-raising campaigns helped make voters aware of the change.

I am also grateful to the local authorities who volunteered for a pilot in May this year. Getting involved will not only help them prepare for national roll-out, it will also uncover insight to ensure the final policy is as robust and accommodating as possible. I would urge others to consider following in their footsteps in future.

As we continue to respect and protect our world-leading democracy it is vital that we are also promoting it. I see government’s role here not only as a legislator, funder and convenor for registration activity, but also as a leader in promoting good practice.

Our updated democratic engagement strategy sets out how we intend to bring together the various parts of the electoral community to make best use of our evidence, skills, knowledge and resources to empower local authorities to continue leading independently.

Last year, for example, we shared details about what has proved most effective in driving up student registration, a brokering role that the government undertook as part of implementing the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. We will build on this later this year by sharing the results of research on how to remove registration barriers for people who are homeless or move frequently.

We have also launched an Atlas of Democratic Variation with the Office for National Statistics. This collection of maps highlights geographic variation of electoral registration and other key data relevant to registration. It is the first time the data has been formatted in this way.

Everyone in the electoral community can use these maps to inform and support the development of their own engagement strategies. I would encourage local authorities to examine the variations it highlights, for we all recognise there is always more to do to meet the future challenges that our democracy faces.

We have a shared responsibility to respect, protect and promote our democracy together.In doing so, I am confident we will inspire others to do the same.

Chloe Smith (Con), minister for the constitution

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