A UK Government Minister has issued a message to the people of Wales about changes to elections and voting.
The Government plans to make it mandatory for voters to produce photo identification before they can cast their ballots.
Critics have said this risks discriminating against disadvantaged groups – including the elderly as well as ethnic minorities.
But, in response, Chloe Smith, UK Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution, said the changes will help ensure the election process is secure, fair, transparent and up-to-date.
She told Wales Online: “To me, democracy is both a right and a responsibility. It is our right to have an equal voice in shaping society and speaking freely for what we believe in. And crucially, it is our responsibility to listen to and learn from the needs of our communities to ensure voters are confident that their voices are heard.
“But what happens if one person’s voice can be stifled, silenced or even stolen? Why should a criminal have two votes, having stolen one from someone else? That is why we must keep our electoral system safe, so that everyone eligible to vote can exercise their right freely and securely.
“Next week, the Elections Bill will be debated in the House of Commons. Delivering on a UK-wide manifesto commitment, the Bill will strengthen the integrity of elections. It will update electoral law, to ensure our democracy remains secure, fair, modern and transparent.
“Currently, you need only say your name and address at the polling station to vote. This Victorian test can easily be faked, leaving the potential for a person to cast someone else’s vote. This kind of electoral fraud is difficult to identify but it is not a victimless crime.
“There’s a reasonable, proportionate fix: require voters to provide photographic identification at the polling station before being handed their ballots. These provisions have existed in Northern Ireland since 2003, helping to stop voter fraud, without compromising the ability of people to vote, and the Bill will extend these sensible checks across the rest of the Union in UK Parliamentary elections.
“After all, identifying ourselves is something we do in most walks of life. The UK Government recently published research showing 98% of electors already own one of the broad range of photographic documents that will be accepted in order to vote. If any elector doesn’t have a form of accepted identification, their local authority will be required, by law, to provide them with a free Voter Card.
“The Bill protects our democracy in other ways too. It will toughen sanctions for those convicted of intimidating political candidates, campaigners and elected representatives – either in person or online – by barring perpetrators from running for elected office for a period of five years.
“The May elections just this year saw horrific abuse of candidates on social media. In Wales, the impact of intimidation and threats of physical violence led a longstanding politician to stand down from public service altogether after 22 years representing their community.
“We are wholly committed to defending free speech within the law. But abuse, intimidation and violence is never acceptable. New laws will also strengthen action against intimidation of voters, by improving and updating the offence of ‘undue influence’ in electoral law, to prevent people from being coerced into giving up control over their vote. Voters don’t expect violence in our elections.
“And by making it easier for Welsh citizens who have moved abroad to vote in UK Parliamentary General Elections, we will make sure that British citizens and their voices are heard no matter where they live.
“We will also strengthen political finance rules to ensure that only those who have a genuine interest and a right to be involved in our elections can spend money campaigning in them, and that spending limits cannot be unfairly expanded.
“As Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, I take responsibility for all UK Parliamentary General Elections. But of course, devolution means devolved governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland can make different arrangements.
“Measures in the Bill will apply to some elections and not others. But we’re working together to make sure changes will be clear and practical. The pandemic has proved we are at our best when we work together.
“The Elections Bill will keep our elections secure, fair, transparent and up-to-date, and will ensure democracy across the United Kingdom continues to thrive.”
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