Democracy by Default: The Representation of the People Act 2000

AuthorHeather Lardy
Publication Date01 Jan 2001
Democracy by Default: The Representation of the
People Act 2000
Heather Lardy*
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)
Act 1998, ss1–5; European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999. The proposals of the Committee on
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.
Entitlement to Vote
Like its predecessors, the RPA 2000 maintains the distinction between entitlement
to vote and entitlement to electoral registration.
The right to vote remains
conditional on being registered to vote, on not being subject to any legal
incapacity (eg conviction of a ‘corrupt practice’ offence), and on meeting the age
and citizenship requirements. The right to be registered to vote is still determined
by residence, in conjunction with the age, citizenship and incapacity rules.
However, the 2000 Act makes certain changes to entitlement to registration which
have the effect of amending indirectly the law governing the franchise, extending
the right to vote to potentially significant numbers of people who previously
experienced a de facto disenfranchisement due to the restrictive nature of the
registration laws.
Electoral Registration
The RPA 2000 introduces a new system of voter registration, replacing a scheme
which was undoubtedly in need of reform. Under the RPA 1983 a person’s register
entry was effectively fixed for sixteen months from the 10 October census date
each year. The register took effect for one year from the following 16 February and
during its currency no alterations could be made in response to voters changing
address or seeking to register late. This inflexible system rendered the register
notoriously inaccurate. More worryingly, it served as a potential barrier to the
exercise of rights to electoral participation. Getting registered to vote (and
particularly getting re-registered elsewhere) could prove to be a slow and
cumbersome bureaucratic exercise, and may have acted as a deterrent to
participation. Voters who changed address during the currency of a register, for
example, were required to wait for up to sixteen months before becoming entitled
to re-register at their new address. They remained entitled, in the meantime, to
apply for an absent vote enabling them to cast a ballot in their old constituency, but
they were nonetheless temporarily excluded from participation in electoral affairs
in their new community. And for many, the further administrative hurdles involved
in applying for an absent ballot no doubt provided a considerable disincentive to
exercising their voting rights.
Under the new system of rolling registration instituted by the RPA 2000 a voter
may be entered on the register at any point in the year by making an application to
the local electoral registration officer to be included.6Although this still requires
compliance with bureaucratic formalities, it is preferable to the old system in that
the voter is granted registration, and the right to vote, on the basis of her new place
of residence, rather than on the rather artificial basis of her prior connection to
another location.
5 Entitlement to vote is set out in RPA 1983, new ss1 and 2, substituted by RPA 2000, s1(1);
entitlement to registration is in RPA 1983, s4, substituted by RPA 2000, new s1(2).
The idea of a rolling register has been around for some time, and was the subject of private
member’s Bills introduced by Harry Barnes MP in the 1993–94 and 1994–95 parliamentary
sessions: see Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill HC Deb vol 237 col 809 15 February
1994 and Representation of the People (Amendment) (No 2) Bill HC Deb vol 265 col 309 1
November 1995. Political concern about low levels of voter registration was heightened by the role
of the ‘poll tax’ in discouraging compliance with electoral registration procedures in the late 1980s
and early 1990s.
The Modern Law Review [Vol. 64
64 ßThe Modern Law Review Limited 2001

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