The UK Elections Act: What does it mean for Welsh voters?

Published 23/05/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

The Elections Act (‘the Act’) came into force on 28 April 2022.

While the Act won’t greatly impact Senedd elections, it has added potential complexity for voters on election days in Wales, with different layers of legislation applying to different types of election.

The majority of the Act applies only to reserved elections – that is, UK parliamentary elections (including Welsh constituencies), local elections in England, and Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections in Wales and England. It won’t, for the most part, impact devolved elections in Wales – that is, Senedd general and by-elections, and local Welsh elections.

This article looks at how the Act will impact Wales, the Welsh Government’s position on the Act, and whether procedure on election days in Wales will change.

What will the Elections Act do?

Reserved elections in Wales

The Act makes significant changes to reserved elections in the UK. For elections involving Welsh seats in the UK Parliament, as well as Welsh PCC elections, the following changes apply:

  • Voters will be required to show photographic ID at polling stations;
  • First-past-the-post will be used for PCC elections, a change from the previous supplementary vote system;
  • The time period for which a person can apply for a postal vote will be limited to three years. After this, voters will need to apply again. Political parties and campaigners will also be banned from handling postal voting documents; and
  • The number of people a person can vote on behalf of (proxy voting) will be limited four, only two of which can be UK-based voters.
Devolved elections in Wales

None of the above changes will apply in Senedd elections, Senedd by-elections or local authority elections in Wales. However, the Senedd has agreed consent for several clauses within the Act that do impact Senedd elections and local elections in Wales. These include:

  • Changes to ‘undue influence’ rules, the offence of threatening to use force or violence to make someone vote a certain way. If a person is found guilty, they would not be able to stand as a candidate in Senedd elections or Welsh local elections;
  • A new electoral sanction introduced for those convicted of intimidation of candidates. The convicted person would be prohibited from standing for or holding certain elective offices, including Senedd Cymru and local authorities in Wales, for five years; and
  • Digital campaign material must include a ‘digital imprint’ listing the name and address of its promoter, and of any person on behalf of whom the material is being published.

What is the Welsh Government’s position?

The Welsh Government does not support the introduction of voter ID. However, it acknowledged that it does not apply to devolved elections in Wales, and is therefore not subject to the legislative consent process.

The Welsh Government disagreed with the UK Government on several areas of the then Bill that it argued fell within the Senedd’s competence. It raised several concerns, including:

  • Clauses which placed duties on the Electoral Commission to ‘have regard’ to a strategy and policy statement setting out the UK Government’s priorities for electoral matters. The Welsh Government argued this was incompatible with the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, and would impact the ability of the Senedd to scrutinise the Electoral Commission (which it does via the Llywydd’s Committee); and
  • The impact that digital imprint and intimidation provisions will have on the Senedd. The Welsh Government said the Senedd should have the option to bring forward its own legislation on these matters, rather than them being introduced via a UK Act.

These concerns meant that the Welsh Government initially recommended against consent to the then Bill.

Following this, several amendments were tabled in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords that carved out Welsh devolved elections from many of the provisions. This meant that clauses the Welsh Government objected to, including the Electoral Commission strategy statement, would no longer apply to Senedd elections or local elections in Wales. The Counsel General described this as a success for devolution.

Despite the concessions, the Welsh Government restated its disagreement with the digital imprints and intimidation provisions, saying they are within the Senedd’s powers, and therefore should not be introduced for devolved elections via a UK Act. The UK Government maintained these provisions did not require Senedd consent.

Will elections days in Wales change?

While the Senedd has agreed consent, concerns remain about the consequences of the legislation for elections in Wales. The Welsh Government warned of “potential unintended consequences such as voter and candidate confusion and complexity for administrators arising from the bill.”

The 2021 Senedd elections was a combined poll with the PCC election. If this is repeated, voters will be required to show photographic ID to vote in PCC elections, but not in Senedd elections. Electoral Reform Society Cymru has raised concerns about poll clerks becoming “bouncers at the ballot box”.

The Senedd’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee said it was concerned about the impact the Act may have on the engagement of citizens in Wales with the democratic process. It recommended that, following the passing of the Act, the Counsel General should issue a statement on the implications of the legislation for devolved elections in Wales.

At the time of publication, no such statement has been made. However, the Counsel General has said that an ‘electoral reform and administration Bill’ will be bought before this Senedd with the aim of improving the administration of devolved elections in Wales.

Article by Philip Lewis, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament