We need to remove barriers to voting so people get the politicians they want

As we approach a general election at some point this year, or maybe early next year, there’s no better time to assess the Government in relation to the conduct of elections. That is why I hosted a Westminster Hall Debate last week to highlight the issues we’re facing. A lot has happened since the last election in December 2019, the country has experienced many challenges, but there have also been some significant changes to electoral legislation. As a Liberal Democrat, ensuring elections are fair and everyone has a voice is deeply important to me which is why I think it’s worth assessing whether these changes have improved our democratic systems, or whether it could be argued that they are tools for our current Government to improve their own position.

As a democratic society, elections represent the cornerstone of our collective voice which is why it is integral that every person can vote without facing obstacles. One major barrier is voter ID. In an urgent question last September, I highlighted the Electoral Commission’s report which warned that voter ID disproportionately prevents people from voting, particularly disabled people, unemployed people, younger people and people from ethnic minorities. It also reported that on average a higher proportion of people were turned away in more deprived areas. The Local Government Information Unit reported that approximately 14,000 voters were not given a ballot paper because they could not show an accepted form of ID, and significantly more were deterred from voting because of the ID requirement. These are pretty alarming figures; thousands of people being turned away at polling stations who otherwise would have voted. This really throws the fairness of our elections into question.

There are many factors that can deter people from voting, not only the introduction of voter ID but also mistrust in politicians, accessibility and feeling unrepresented. This lack of trust and the introduction of deterring policies can likely explain the fall in the number of people registered to vote. Estimates by Unlock Democracy’s recent report on ‘Registering Every Voter’ found that up to 8 million people are missing from the electoral register. Most of whom are in the same demographic as those impacted most by the introduction of voter ID. It is so important that everyone is represented in politics, and we need to remove barriers enabling people to vote easily so that representative politicians can be elected.

Beyond political candidates, responsibility for upholding ethical conduct during elections extends to the media and the electorate itself. Whilst there is immense value in being able to spread important information and for people to share their opinions, we must be careful that misinformation is not spread. It creates divides and can also result in threats towards MPs safety. This responsibility for spreading truthful information extends to political parties themselves too. We have seen a substantial increase in the amount of spending, particularly from the Conservatives, being used for leaflets and social media campaigns. In the last few weeks there has been a lot of discussion about where the Government’s donations have come from, particularly in relation to their major donor Frank Hester who, despite racist and misogynistic comments, has not been ruled out of consideration as a future peer and further donor. Big donations impact trust in politicians, and Liberal Democrats believe that a cap on political donations would really help improve transparency and accountability. It would also give a wider range of political voices an opportunity to be heard.

Although my preference is to see the introduction of overseas constituencies, I am glad that the legislation regarding overseas voters means that UK nationals living overseas will now be able to vote even if they have lived overseas for more than 15 years. Ensuring overseas voters can effectively take part in UK elections is essential in making sure all eligible citizens have their voices heard. However, we still have challenges to tackle. Local authorities do not hold extensive historical electoral registers for example. This means that the number of additional overseas voters and where they will vote can currently only be estimated. The recent boundary changes are supposed the equalise the size of constituencies based on the number of people on the electoral role and new overseas voters will impact on this. We need to ensure we have clear and uncomplicated ways for overseas voters to cast their votes.

I hope that in the upcoming election we will see a large portion of the public turn up to polling stations to vote and that a representative cohort of MPs will be chosen.

Wendy Chamberlain MP

Wendy Chamberlain is the Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife, and was elected in 2019. She currently undertakes the roles of Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), and Liberal Democrat Chief Whip.