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. 

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