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Sir Eric's review contains missed opportunities

  • Comment

When the government responded to Sir Eric Pickles’ review of electoral fraud, I said the Association of Electoral Administrators was looking forward to working closely with officials in determining the mechanics of the recommendations that were being taken forward.

Combating actual and perceived electoral fraud is an essential part of delivering safe and secure elections, something we wholeheartedly support, but there is a need to ensure that any measures introduced are deliverable and proportionate and do not in themselves lead to unintended difficulties for voters, candidates or electoral administrators.

Comparing the government’s response to Sir Eric’s review with the AEA’s list of priorities drawn up from our 2016 post election and referendum report, my considered opinion is that there are both some missed opportunities and that the caveat about ‘unintended difficulties’ may well not be met.

A shortened list of our overall priorities include that the UK government should:

  • implement the Law Commissions’ recommendations to bring forward a single Electoral Administration Act;
  • undertake a UK-wide review of funding, staffing and other resources;
  • urgently examine the risks introduced by the combination of polls scheduled for 7 May 2020;
  • carry out a review of individual elector registration processes;
  • restrict the same person from registering more than once on the online service;
  • consider a review of the registration deadline before elections;
  • consider the registration and absent vote deadlines for overseas electors;
  • review the circumstances, criteria and deadline for emergency proxy applications.

Most of these priorities have a direct or indirect implication for electoral integrity purposes, with the Law Commissions’ recommendations for electoral reform unashamedly being at the top of the list.

The AEA believes that this single recommendation, if implemented, would bring considerable benefits to all who have an interest in the improvement of electoral administration including voters, political parties, candidates and those responsible for the registration of electors and the conduct of polls.

A single Electoral Administration Act would bring considerable benefits to all who have an interest in improving electoral administration

At a single stroke, the law would be changed from its current base fixed firmly in the second half of the 19th century to one which would be fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Specifically, there are three chapters in the Law Commissions’ report which deal with electoral offences, regulation of campaign expenditure, and legal challenge. A comprehensive approach to ensuring electoral integrity should include these matters.

The other eight priorities have an impact on electoral integrity and need urgent consideration if the government is serious about tackling the issues identified in Sir Eric’s report.

Of the government’s proposals, the one that has attracted the most attention is that relating to the requirement that voters will be required to provide identification to vote in polling stations.

Although the current proposal is to pilot this in certain areas where there have been historical issues with electoral integrity, the ramifications on the efficient and effective administration of polling stations raises complex questions about due process, the likely increased costs and, perhaps most importantly, the possible debarring effect on some would-be voters.

As always, the devil will be in the detail and we will wish to engage fully with the government.

John Turner, chief executive, Association of Electoral Administrators

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