2016 has been the year that democracy reasserted itself. In June, voters across the UK took part in a historic referendum, the outcome of which has profoundly changed our relationships with 27 other nations. Last month, after an 18 month campaign covered around the world, the race to become President of the United States of America was concluded. Voters across the world have been reminded that the course of history can be changed simply by turning up to a polling station, waiting patiently in a queue and marking a piece of paper.
At the end of this month, I step down as Chair of the Electoral Commission. The past eight years seem to have been filled by a constant stream of electoral events and I’m grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make them happen, in particular the EU referendum this summer, which ran smoothly under an unprecedented degree of scrutiny. But just as politics will never stand still, so neither can the electoral system which supports it, if it is to continue to meet the needs and expectations of voters. And we need to develop it in a way which ensures both security and participation, rather than seeing these as competing outcomes.
Transferring responsibility for electoral registration from the head of the household to each individual, coupled with the introduction of online registration, has proved to be an important and valuable step to modernise our democracy and make it more secure. We first called for this in 2003 so it has been a long time coming. But bringing it into effect now in our technologically competent world means that registration could be even easier, using a wide range of data sources to identify those who should be on the register but aren’t, thus improving participation. And we continue to make the case for the registration website, run by the UK Government, to allow people to check if they are already registered to vote. So many of us, young people especially, now conduct our ‘life admin’ online. Allowing people to check if they are registered would also save local authorities time and money by reducing unnecessary applications.
On the other hand, there has been little progress on another of the Commission’s recommendations to strengthen our trust based system. We first recommended in January 2014 that there should be a requirement for voters in Great Britain to present photo ID at a polling station. This is a system that has existed in Northern Ireland for a number of years. I’m pleased that the Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion has recently come to the same conclusion and hope that the UK Government will now take up the proposal, and do so in the way we have recommended which will again safeguard participation.
Confidence in our democracy is also driven by ensuring there are the highest levels of transparency possible. In the past 8 years alone, £330 million of donations to political parties have been published by the Commission. But it is also important that no politician, political party or campaigner is perceived to be above the law. Voters need to know that if the rules are broken, action will be taken. We were only given the ability to levy our own civil sanctions in 2010. Now the Commission has called on the UK Parliament to give us stronger powers so that where there are serious breaches of the rules, more proportionate action can be taken. To reflect the fact that many parties receive and spend tens of millions of pounds at major elections and referendums, our maximum fine should be extended beyond its current £20,000 limit. Without this change, the maximum fine could all too easily become the cost of doing business.
The next few years could see a number of changes to how we vote in this country. The UK’s Law Commissions have already recommended how electoral law dating back to the 1800s can be streamlined, including changing the electoral petition process which is no longer fit for purpose. The heightened interest in the US elections also means there has been more focus on how they conduct their elections: the ability to register and cast a vote on the day of the poll and the ability to vote at a poll station up to a week before polling day are just two of the things the Electoral Commission will be looking at over the next few years. I know that my colleagues will work with governments and legislatures across the UK to come up with solutions that serve to make our democracy even better.
After the past few years at the Electoral Commission and in light of election, and referendum results over the past few years, my message is a simple one: Never underestimate the power of the ballot box. It is how your voice is heard.
Chair of the Electoral Commission