Commission calls for single electoral law

Topics: Administrative and public law,Government & politics

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Lawyers sitting up for the count in the 2020 general election will be spared the ritual of explaining why it is always the acting returning officer who announces the number of votes cast, if proposals published by the Law Commission today become reality. 

In a wide-ranging call for rationalisation of electoral law, the commission describes the divide between the largely ceremonial role of returning officer and the ‘administratively very significant’ role of the acting officer as ‘redundant and confusing’.

Rather, it proposes that the returning officer should be responsible for running the election. 

The measure would appear in a single piece of legislation to replace ‘complex, voluminous and fragmented’ statutes covering different types of elections. This would include a single set of electoral offences, set out in primary legislation, applying to all UK elections.

Following a consultation, an interim report on reform was published by the Law Commission in collaboration its sister bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Among other things, the proposed reforms would also: 

  • Modernise the process for challenging elections, making it easier for parties to understand and use. Judges would be given the power, ‘in appropriate cases’, to limit the potential costs for challengers;
  • Require electors with more than one residence to designate one as their voting residence in national elections, to reduce the risk of double-voting;
  • Ban the unauthorised taking of photographs in polling stations to preserve ballot secrecy; 
  • Ensure that the UK’s tradition of ‘qualified secrecy’ - involving numbered papers that can be traced to investigate fraud - ‘clearly and demonstrably’ complies with the European Convention on Human Rights;
  • Require online election material to carry an identifying imprint as currently required for printed leaflets. 

However the report shies away from recommending a ban on campaign workers handling postal votes, saying that ‘regulation would criminalise helpful and otherwise unavailable assistance for those voters who need it’. The report notes that Eric Pickles MP has been tasked with investigating the issue of electoral fraud. 

In another decision likely to provoke controversy, the commission does not propose creating an offence of ‘threatening spiritual injury’, proposing instead that the current offence of undue influence be restated as offences of intimidation, deception and improper pressure.  

The interim report on UK electoral law is based on ‘unanimous or near unanimous’ backing to proposals announced for consultations. They are timed to enable a draft bill to be introduced in 2017 and come into force by the general election due in May 2020, the commission said.

However it will await the go-ahead of the governments of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland before submitting final proposals and draft legislation. 

Readers' comments (5)

  • And still, apparently, no recommendation of online voting for registered overseas electors, who currently have to make use of postal voting (assuming that few wish to use proxies and thus lose effective control of their votes). If they are lucky (the luck level diminishes in line with the elector's distance from the UK), they may get their ballot paper before the polls close. Few, it seems, receive them in time to complete them and post them back to the returning officer in time sufficient for them to be delivered before the polls close. Even if one lives in an EU country, it's 'hit-and-miss'. If you live in some far flung place, possibly weeks' postal distance from the UK, effectively you are disenfranchised. It's really ironic. In an age in which it's considered safe - or, at least, acceptably risky - to conduct major financial transactions online, presumably the powers that be consider it unsafe to permit voting online. Has anyone told them the century in which now we are living?

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  • When we lived in Australia the postal vote took 7 days to reach us, but as the law stands voting papers are sent out on the evening of the 10th day of the Vote.
    Now taking seven days out how on earth logically can that ballot paper ever get back in time to count ?
    The French are allowed to vote at their embassies abroad , so why are we still in the Dark ages ?

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  • ' ..... so why are we still in the Dark ages ?'

    Because registered overseas voters are a minority that:

    - generally doesn't tip the balance at elections; and
    - doesn't shout loudly about the discrimination of it; and
    - is not ethnic.

    Maybe if a member of this minority were to challenge the existing legislation as being discriminatory to it and a deprivation of its human rights, and go to Strasbourg if necessary, someone in Westminster might sit up and pay attention rathan than yawning and saying 'next one, please'!

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  • Hi Anonymous 5 February what is a minority - I don't accept that some 570,000 British citizens and many still UK taxpayers are a minority .
    Obviously you have forgotten your history and why the US fought us in the war of Independence- namely the same reason as the overseas votes - TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION !

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  • Regarding the case before the Strasbourg it was Carson v regina.
    But then the evidence produced by the UK Government was, to put it nicely mendacious. #
    But then you are well aware of the lies and untruths emanating from those who should know better within the present cockup in the legal aid and courts fees ?

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