I am pleased to update Parliament today on amendments the Government will shortly be bringing forward to the Elections Bill which will help to ensure we fully deliver on our commitment to protecting our democracy.
The changes brought forward by the Bill are vital to ensure our democracy remains secure, fair, modern and transparent and I am therefore pleased to also update Parliament today with further information on their implementation. It is our expectation that all the measures will be in place within the lifetime of this Parliament and implementation will be staged over a sensible and pragmatic timetable; it is imperative that this is done properly and with sufficient time for the elections sector and voters to prepare for the new requirements.
Voter identification and the Voter Card
I am today publishing a policy statement, “Protecting the integrity of our elections: voter identification at polling stations and the new Voter Card”, which sets out more detail on the Government’s proposals for the voter identification policy.
The statement includes details of the rationale for the list of accepted photographic identifications in the Elections Bill and further information around our plans for the application process for voter cards.
A voter card will be available free of charge to ensure that all electors have access to an accepted form of identification. The Government are clear that the process for applying for this card must be accessible for all those who need it. There will therefore be a range of application routes, voter cards will be valid across all of Great Britain— not just in the issuing area—and the Government will shortly be tabling amendments to adjust some of the current drafting of the Bill to increase the accessibility and security of the voter card and ensure the voter card system works for all eligible voters.
Voters in Northern Ireland have been required to show identification when voting at polling stations since 1985, and the photographic voter identification system has been in place there for almost 20 years since it was brought in by the last Labour Government in 2003. Since its introduction, this requirement has successfully helped to tackle electoral fraud and has been operating with ease. In their 2021 public opinion tracker, the Electoral Commission recorded not a single Northern Ireland respondent reporting “I don’t have any identification/I would not be able to vote”.
It is our expectation that voter identification will be in place in Great Britain in time for polls taking place in spring 2023, with the voter card system in operation in good time ahead of this.
Absent Vote Applications
The Government will be introducing a further amendment to the Bill to require identity verification for absent vote applications, as is already the case for Northern Ireland. This will ensure that applications are legitimate, protecting the system from fraud.
A further amendment will provide for an online absent vote application service, making this process more efficient for both citizens and electoral administrators and placing both integrity and elector participation at the heart of our democracy. The new online application service, as well as existing paper applications, will require electors to have their identity verified as part of the process, ensuring that the system is as streamlined as possible for users. As we legislate to update our electoral system we are therefore also ensuring public confidence that our elections will remain secure well into the future.
In order to ensure efficiency of electoral administrative processes, it is our ambition to align the new online application process with other changes to absent vote arrangements and the delivery of overseas electors’ voting rights. Rollout of the online service will be conditional on the identity verification processes being in place and the timing of rollout in Northern Ireland will be dependent on meeting the particular safeguards required in Northern Ireland. This is in order to reduce any opportunity for individuals to exploit the processes and steal votes.
Technical amendments to the Elections Bill
The Bill will be amended to reflect that responsibility for elections has moved from the Cabinet Office to the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. In addition, an amendment will be made to provisions in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 regarding membership of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, to allow for the most relevant Minister to be appointed by the Prime Minister to be able to deputise for the Secretary of State on the Committee as and when needed. These changes will not increase the Government’s allocated representation on the Committee.
Several amendments will also be made to the clauses in the Bill relating to the new digital imprints regime. These amendments include clarifying the enforcement responsibilities of the Electoral Commission and the police, and improving consistency between the clauses that relate to “paid material” and those that relate to “other electronic material” (or unpaid material). They will also clarify that the imprint rules will apply only to unpaid electronic material wholly or mainly related to referendums, when published during the referendum period. Further, these amendments will ensure that the regime covers all relevant elections, including all City of London elections. These amendments will help ensure transparency and empower voters to make informed decisions about the material they see online.
The associated document has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and amendments to the Elections Bill will be tabled in due course.