Democracy by Default: The Representation of the
People Act 2000
Electoral law reform plays a significant part in the current government’s
programme of constitutional development. The devolution settlements, reform of
the voting system for European Parliamentary elections, and the report of the Neill
Committee on political party funding and election campaign expenditure have all
necessitated consequential changes to the law governing elections.1Perhaps less
visible, however, are the changes to the law governing parliamentary and local
government elections which have been enacted in the Representation of the People
Act 2000.2This statute implements the recommendations of the Howarth Working
Party on Electoral Procedures, established by the government in early 1998 to
conduct a broad review of electoral law and procedure, with particular emphasis on
declining rates of participation at elections.3The RPA 2000 seeks to encourage
voter participation by modernising the system of electoral registration, by
providing for postal ballots on demand, and by authorising the use of experimental
methods of vote-casting and counting at local elections.4The statute does not
consolidate the law contained in the earlier Representation of the People Acts,
instead making major amendments to the RPA 1983. This note comments on the
main provisions of the Act, offering the view that its reforms, while generally
welcome, may be undermined by their neglect of basic issues of principle
concerning the enjoyment and exercise of the right to vote.
ßThe Modern Law Review Limited 2001 (MLR 64:1, January). Published by Blackwell Publishers,
108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. 63
*University of Aberdeen. Thanks to Angus Campbell, Oonagh Gay and an anonymous referee for their
comments on earlier drafts. Any remaining errors are mine.
1 Scotland Act 1998, ss 1–18; Government of Wales Act 1998, ss1–15; Northern Ireland (Elections)
Standards in Public Life (Neill Committee) in its 5th report, The Funding of Political Parties (October
1998, Cm 4057) are implemented by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill 2000.
2 Hereafter ‘the Act’ or ‘the 2000 Act’ or ‘RPA 2000’. ‘RPA’ is used throughout to denote a
Representation of the People Act.
3Final Report of the Working Party on Electoral Procedures Home Office October 1999. The
Government clearly directed the Howarth Working Party to have regard to ‘the Government’s
concerns that interest in the democratic process, as measured in part by participation in elections at all
levels, has shown a steady decline over a number of years’, para 1.1. The Select Committee on Home
Affairs issued a report on electoral law during the deliberations of the Working Party, which was also
focused on the need to increase voter turnout: Electoral Law and Administration, Select Committee
on Home Affairs Fourth Report 1997–98.
4 The Act also contains more minor provisions which are not discussed. They concern service voters
(s7) assistance for partially-sighted voters (s13) and free delivery of election addresses at Greater
London Authority elections (s14). In addition, the Act amends the RPA 1983 to add a new offence of
making false statements about a candidate’s name or address in nomination papers (RPA 1983, s65A
inserted by RPA 2000, Sched 6 para 5): this is to plug a gap left by the Registration of Political Parties
Act 1998, which tackled only the problem of misleading party names or descriptions. (The 1998 Act
will be superseded by Part II of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill 2000.) Forging
the signature of an assentor to a nomination, or extracting it duplicitously is also made an offence by
RPA 2000, Sched 6 para 5.