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Outcry as Government Proposes Letting Brits ‘Vouch’ for Overseas Voters’ Identities – While Denying Same Chance for In-Person Voters Who Lack ID

There are fears lax rules could allow unfettered cash to flood in to UK politics from abroad

Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA/Alamy

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The Government has been accused of “corrupting democracy” as it pushes through legislation that will allow Brits living overseas to have their identity confirmed by an existing UK voter – while rejecting calls for the same rules to apply to in-person voters who lack photo ID. 

A little-known piece of legislation – the Draft Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 – is currently sitting in Parliament after being drawn up by ministers, and does not require a parliamentary vote to pass. 

It will allow overseas voters to have their identity vouched for by a currently-registered voter, when they sign up to vote abroad. Voters living here can already register this way, though the process is rarely used, and there are fears that relaxed rules for overseas voters could open the UK up to foreign interference and a flood of opaque donations. 

Ministers have just raised the spending limit by 80% for general elections for political parties – again without a parliamentary vote – while separate legislation has scrapped the previous 15-year limit that people could live abroad and continue to be able to vote.

In theory, someone could have lived abroad for 50 years, with little evidence of where they used to vote – and a friend living in the UK could vouch that they were telling the truth about their eligibility to cast their ballot in a key swing seat.  

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Liberal Democrat peer Lord Chris Rennard is sounding the alarm about the plans, arguing that the so-called ‘attestation’ rules letting overseas citizens register to vote without firm documentation showing they used to live in the UK will enable Brits overseas to donate unlimited sums to political causes.

It comes after the Government controversially rejected calls from the Electoral Commission watchdog and democracy campaigners to let voters bring alternative forms of voter identification following May’s elections or to allow others to ‘attest’ to the identity of those who lack ID. 

At least 14,000 voters were turned away from polling stations and denied a vote in England in May. There are fears as many as 100,000 people could be turned away in next year’s general election. 

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“There is a clear pattern of this Government bending election rules in their favour,” Lord Rennard told Byline Times. “Jacob Rees-Mogg admitted that the strict voter ID rules were a form of ‘gerrymandering’. 

“One way of helping to ensure that legitimate voters can participate in elections would be to allow ‘attestation’ at the polling stations. This work, for example, in Canada where voters with the requisite ID can ‘vouch’ for someone on the electoral roll but who is without the necessary photo ID.  The Government has recently rejected this sensible proposal in order to limit participation.  

“Such a process as attestation can be used to get on the electoral register and this may be crucial for registering more of the UK citizens who have been living overseas for more than 15 years.”

He believes the Government’s motive for the change in overseas voter registration may be “principally linked to allowing unlimited donations from these people”.

“It seems wrong that a form of attestation may be used to register people to vote when there is no evidence of a previous address in the UK, whilst not allowing a similar process for people who are on the electoral registers but do not have the specific forms of Photo ID to vote at a polling station,” he added.

“The Government is not bothered about the right to vote – it is concerned about raising big donations from people without stringent checks on the original sources of funding.  This corrupts democracy.”

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission confirmed that so-called attestation rules would apply to oversees voters registering, but not those who lack ID and try to vote in person.

They said: “When applying to register, overseas voters will be able to supply an attestation of registration status from a qualifying voter, or an attestation of relevant address connection. We will be publishing our guidance with further detail in the coming weeks.

“Attestations are already an option for verifying a UK-based person’s identity in the process of registering to vote. It is not currently used in the voting process, but we recommended that the same principle could be extended to polling stations to vouch for those without ID. This would help to improve accessibility and support those people who do not have an accepted form of ID.”

Campaign group British in Europe has broadly welcomed the changes in a briefing

There will be a limit of two people that a UK registered voter can ‘vouch’ for among overseas voters. 

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In practice, the short election timetable makes it hard for overseas voters to participate in UK votes, as the window for sending postal votes out and back from overseas is generally too tight. But voters including those overseas are now able to register for a postal vote online under a new government portal, making the overall process smoother. 

Meanwhile, Labour peer Lord Khan of Burnley has filed an objection to the draft law saying it could “dangerously weaken the restrictions on overseas political donations and allow foreign money to enter our democracy”.

The new statutory instrument, or ‘Henry VIII’ order, will be debated on Wednesday in the House of Commons. The draft legislation can be read here

The voter ID rules currently exclude several forms of ID used by young people, including Young Persons’ Railcards and some forms of student ID. 

Labour refused to say whether it would repeal the ID requirements if in government, when asked by Byline Times earlier this year. The Lib Dems back repeal of the ID rules. The full list of acceptable IDs is published here.

Byline Times has extensively covered the voter ID roll-out and will be monitoring further developments.

ShoutOut UK and the Greater London Authority have launched a new WhatsApp chat bot to give advice on getting ID and registering to vote. Add +44 7908 820136 to use it.

The Department for Levelling Up was contacted for comment. 

Update: This article was amended after publication to make it clear that the new online portal is for registering for a postal vote, not voting online.

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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.

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