On June 15th 2021, Chloe Smith MP gave a speech hosted by right wing think tank Policy Exchange on the Government’s plans to safeguard democracy from 21st century dangers. She evoked the second American president, John Adams, and cited Freedom House’s Freedom of the World Index to demonstrate the global “democratic recession” that the world is currently experiencing.
To combat this recession, she describes the multiple pending pieces of legislation, including both the Electoral Integrity Bill and the Online Safety Bill, as part of a larger initiative to “keep the UK’s democracy modern, secure, transparent, and fair.”
Smith followed this speech with two written statements to Parliament, published on the 15th and 17th of June 2021. Both revealed new information about the Government’s forthcoming Electoral Integrity Bill.
Changes to the Electoral Commission:
Smith’s written statement to Parliament on the 17th of June revealed plans to significantly alter the functioning of the Electoral Commission. In order to address perceived issues with the Commission’s accountability, the Elections Bill will include measures to introduce a ‘Strategy & Policy Statement’ to guide the Commission’s core functioning.
The ‘Strategy & Policy Statement’ will be “developed through a statutory consultation with key stakeholders” and, crucially, approved by Parliament. The Statement will set the priorities and principles that the Commission is expected to operate within. Making the Electoral Commission beholden to Parliament (and thus the Government of the day) would greatly diminish its operational independence, making it a weaker and less impartial institution.
Smith also proposed to increase the remit of the Speaker’s Committee (which the Commission currently reports to), making the Commission more accountable to the Committee for its “performance and delivery of general objectives”. In theory this is no great threat to the Commission’s independence but in practice, with Westminster’s governing party holding a majority on the Committee, it would further bring the Commission under the Government’s control.
The Electoral Commission’s capacity to prosecute will also be clearly ruled out, with ministers arguing that it “wastes public money” and preferring to keep that responsibility firmly within the remit of the police and Crown Prosecution Service. This constitutes the removal of a potentially important accountability enforcement mechanism for the Commission. An already stretched CPS does not need this extra burden. The Commission, specialists in the area, should be given the resources and power to properly prosecute infringements of electoral law.
The bill will also “introduce a new electoral sanction, so that somebody convicted of intimidating a candidate, future candidate, campaigner or elected representative will be banned for 5 years from standing for and holding elective office.” As most online abusers are not standing for – nor do they show any interest in standing for office, this is an ineffective and pointless deterrent.
Beyond that, another bill is in its second reading in the House of Commons that seeks to abolish the Electoral Commission entirely. While the bill will be unsuccessful, it demonstrates a consistent commitment from sections of Parliament against the Commission.
Smith also outlined “reforms to political financing, campaigning and advertising.” Campaigners would need to register with the Electoral Commission if they are spending over £10,000 across the UK on political campaigning during election periods. This is a small step in the right direction. Ideally, all campaign organisations, third party or official, should have an exit “audit” with the Electoral Commission following the election period.
Also mentioned was “tighter rules to reduce the risk of ineligible overseas involvement” by “ensuring that campaign spending can come only from sources that have a genuine and legitimate interest in UK elections.” This is pointing in a good direction, but genuine and legitimate are subjective terms that are hard to define concretely. Corporate donations should be required to come from profits declared in the UK.
Unsurprisingly, Chloe Smith MP defended the Electoral Integrity Bill’s focus on voter fraud and touted voter ID as the solution to that alleged problem. She claimed that free ID cards will be made available to all, though it is extremely unclear how exactly that will be possible or where that funding will come from.
As we’ve seen in trial experiments of Voter ID, more people are turned away, marginalised groups are disproportionately affected, and the increase to voter confidence is negligible.
In conclusion, there are a few welcome details in Smith’s recent statements, but they are greatly overshadowed by reforms that would weaken the Electoral Commission and effectively rescind its independence. This would greatly increase the Government’s authority over the body that is supposed to oversee election regulations. It is not hard to discern the conflict of interest.
The independence of democratic institutions like the Commission is of paramount importance to the health and sustainability of our democracy. In calling to curb the Commission’s independence and touting mandatory voter ID laws, Chloe Smith erodes her own pro-democratic message.