Publications / Briefings

General election rules and regulations: what has changed?

26 Apr 2024
Voters in a polling station. ©Alex Lee, Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
Voters in a polling station. ©Alex Lee, Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

With a general election on the horizon there has been a spate of new legislation and regulations to implement changes to the way the election will be run, with consequences for voters and electoral administrators. Parliament has not always had a role in approving these changes. This briefing sets out the core changes to the electoral process that have been implemented since the last general election in 2019, the role that Parliament has played in scrutinising and approving them, and the risks arising from these changes.

Matthew England, Researcher, Hansard Society
,
Researcher, Hansard Society

Matthew England

Matthew England
Researcher, Hansard Society

Matt joined the Hansard Society in 2023 to focus on the Society’s ongoing research into delegated powers and the system of scrutiny for delegated legislation. He also maintains the Society’s legislative monitoring service, the Statutory Instrument Tracker®. He graduated with a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from the University of Oxford in 2020 and an MSc in Political Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2021. Before joining the Hansard Society, Matt worked as a researcher for a Member of Parliament focusing primarily on legislative research.

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This Parliament must be dissolved for a general election by 17 December 2024 (the fifth anniversary of the date this Parliament first met following the last general election in 2019, thereby completing the maximum 5-year term permitted for any Parliament under the Septennial Act 1715).

The Prime Minister has indicated that the general election will be in the second half of the year, but with the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act the precise date is entirely in his hands.

If Parliament is dissolved as late as possible - on the 17 December - then the latest date for the election would be 28 January 2025 (25 working days after dissolution, so excluding weekends and bank holidays).

Whenever the Prime Minister decides to call the general election, it will be a noticeably different one from those in the past. Significant changes have been made to electoral rules and processes over the past five years affecting who can vote, how they can vote, and what identification they need to bring with them in order to vote. Changes have also been introduced affecting how much parties can spend and the rules that apply when they are campaigning, including in relation to digital campaigning and direct marketing.

These changes have been implemented through a package of different primary and delegated legislation, each subject to different and often inconsistent levels of parliamentary scrutiny. The primary legislation was introduced through both Government Bills and Private Members’ Bills, and while some delegated legislation required active debate and approval by both Houses others required no parliamentary scrutiny at all.

The Elections Act 2022 introduced mandatory photo ID when voting in person at a polling station.

Voters in 230 local authorities in England had their first experience of this in the local elections in 2023, but the general election will mark the first occasion when voter ID is rolled out nationwide.

Schedule 1 of the Elections Act 2022 sets out a list of permissible forms of voter ID. This list can be modified by Ministers using delegated legislation in the future.

The permitted list of voter ID currently includes:

  • passports;

  • driving licences, including provisional driving licences;

  • blue badges;

  • older person’s bus passes;

  • disabled person’s bus passes;

  • oyster 60+ cards;

  • freedom passes;

  • a range of concessionary travel passes funded by devolved authorities;

  • biometric immigration documents;

  • defence identity cards;

  • a proof of age standards scheme (PASS) card; and

  • national identity cards issued by an EEA state.

The list also includes a newly-created free Voter Authority Certificate (VAC) which has been created for the approximately 2 million people believed to be without adequate photo ID (at the 2023 local elections just 25,000 VACs were actually used).

This permitted list of voter ID has been criticised for being unacceptably narrow. The House of Lords originally amended the Schedule during scrutiny of the Elections Bill to add certain non-photographic forms of ID to the list. However, the Government rejected this proposal. Critics continue to point out that although older people may use their bus passes as voter ID, younger people may not use their travel cards (the Government claims this is because of the stricter application requirements that apply to the former).

Following the 2023 local elections the Electoral Commission recommended that the Government review the list of accepted forms of ID. However, the Government has subsequently rejected this recommendation so the list of accepted forms of ID is now unlikely to change before the general election.

At the 2023 local elections, approximately 14,000 people were turned away for not having the correct ID, and did not return to the polling station. Notably this number only includes those who were turned away by staff inside the polling station, and therefore does not count those who were, for example, reminded of the ID requirement by "greeters" stationed outside of the polling station.

Moreover, four percent of those who didn't vote said that voter ID was the reason why they chose not to do so. When prompted with a list of reasons, that rose to seven percent. The figure is also significantly higher among disabled and unemployed people.

In a lengthy letter sent in December 2023 to Simon Hoare MP, the responsible Minister at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the House of Lords Constitution Committee highlighted the low level of public awareness of the policy and the heightened impact of it on certain groups. It recommended better support for awareness-raising campaigns, particularly targeted at those demographics most likely to be affected, as well as the introduction of a digital Voter Authority Certificate and more rigorous research by the Department into the negative affects of voter ID.

The Government used the Elections Act 2022 to implement many of the recommendations concerning reform of postal and proxy voting arrangements set out in the 2016 report of Sir Eric Pickles' review of electoral fraud.

The new requirements include:

  • Renewal of postal votes: Postal voters will need to reapply for a postal vote every three years, replacing the previous requirement to refresh their signature every five years.

  • Online applications: Voters can now apply for postal or proxy votes online. While supporting the principle of online absent vote applications, in October 2023 the Association of Election Administrators recommended a delay to implementation of this policy on the grounds that a “fully functioning and end-to-end tested system” was not ready, thus exposing the system and Electoral Returning Officers to “untenable levels of risk.”

  • National Insurance number requirement: Postal and proxy vote applications must now be accompanied by a National Insurance number. Those without a National Insurance number will have other routes to verify their identity.

  • Limit on the number of proxy voters per person: An individual will only be permitted to act as proxy for two domestic voters, or four voters if two of them are either overseas voters or service personnel voters. It will be an offence to act as a proxy for more than two domestic voters. This limit was originally recommended in the 2016 Pickles Report but was opposed by the Electoral Commission, on the grounds that it would not offer additional protection to voters and "may disadvantage some electors with a genuine need to appoint a proxy."

  • Prohibition on activists handling postal votes: Party campaigners will be prohibited from handling the postal ballots or ballot packs of absent voters. There is an exemption for campaigners who handle a postal vote for a relative.

  • Limits on handing in postal votes: An individual will now only be able to hand in five or fewer postal ballot packs at a polling station and they will need to sign a declaration when they hand in votes at the polling station.

  • Absent voting secrecy: New provisions protecting the secrecy of postal and proxy voting have been introduced, bringing the protections in line with those for polling stations. Individuals will be prohibited from obtaining, attempting to obtain, or communicating information about a person’s postal vote. Similarly, a person acting as a proxy must not communicate information about the vote cast by the person for whom they are acting as a proxy.

Electoral law has long contained measures designed to protect the secrecy of ballots in polling stations. For decades it has been an offence to undertake any action designed to induce or compel someone to vote in a particular way, to attempt to interfere with someone while they are voting, or to find out or attempt to find out how someone has voted or intends to vote in a polling station.

But concerns were recently expressed that those offences failed to adequately address the issue of ‘family voting’, whereby a person is accompanied into a polling booth, usually by a member of their family, and is thereby directly or indirectly influenced in deciding how they vote. It is an issue that particularly affects women. The UN has criticised the practice of family voting as a means of enforcing on women a “strong cultural expectation… to vote for the candidate or party that she has been instructed to vote for” by her husband or father. Democracy Volunteers – an organisation of volunteer electoral observers – reported that family voting was observed at around one in six of the polling stations they visited during last year's local elections.

In response to these concerns, Lord Hayward introduced a Private Member’s Bill, with Government support, to address family voting in polling stations. Now the Ballot Secrecy Act 2023, Lord Hayward’s legislation makes it a criminal offence to accompany an elector into a polling booth or to position oneself near an elector inside a polling station in an attempt to influence their vote.

This Act is a recent and rare example of a successful Private Member’s Bill originating in the House of Lords. Only four of the 83 successful Private Member’s Bills over the last ten years have been presented by Peers, and Lord Hayward’s Bill is notable for being the only Lords’ PMB enacted to date during this 2019-24 Parliament.

Until 1985 no British citizen living overseas could vote in UK elections, save for a very limited exception for those in service. That restriction was relaxed in 1985, but overseas voters were still barred from voting if they had resided abroad for longer than a length of time specified in legislation. In 2002 that limit was set at 15 years.

The Elections Act 2022 removed the 15-year limit and granted all British citizens living overseas the right to register to vote in UK elections, no matter how long they had resided abroad. The delegated legislation – the Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 - outlining the details of the application process and other technical elements of the policy came into force on 16 January 2024 since when all overseas British citizens have been able to register to vote in UK elections.

Overseas electors can register to vote in the constituency that covers their most recent UK address via an ‘attestation process’ whereby a currently-registered voter vouches for their identity and personal connection to a previous UK address. Critics of the change argue that it is open to abuse: if an overseas voter has a pick of seats in which to register it exposes the system to manipulation. The Government argues that the overseas voter must have a demonstrable link to the constituency in which they wish to register. However, responsibility for processing and monitoring these overseas voter applications, will be entirely a matter for local returning officers. At a time when many new election changes are being introduced over a short period, and when resources are limited, there are concerns about their capacity to do so effectively. Critics have also pointed out that it is odd to be making it easier for overseas electors to vote, whilst making it harder (due to the introduction of voter ID) for UK electors to vote.

The precise impact of the change is difficult to quantify since data on the number of British citizens living overseas is not officially provided. However, the Government estimated that 2.3 million British nationals would become eligible to vote after the elimination of the 15-year limit and that 302,000 of those new electors would register to vote in the first general election after the change.

The reform was implemented via a Statutory Instrument: unusually the Delegated Legislation Committee in the House of Commons that considered the Instrument divided 10 to 6 such was the strength of the opposition parties concern with the measure.

Those who donate more than £500 must be on the electoral register. Campaigners have expressed concern that the new overseas voter rules will increase the risk of foreign donations influencing UK politics, including the possibility of manipulation of those rules by hostile states.

A motion to ‘regret’ the Statutory Instrument implementing the policy was moved by Labour Peers in December 2024, arguing that the extension of overseas voting would “dangerously weaken the restrictions on overseas political donations”.

Spending limits in UK elections apply primarily to three categories of spending:

  • party spending during the regulated period;

  • candidate spending during the 'long campaign'; and

  • candidate spending during the ‘short campaign'.

The regulated period for party spending applies exactly 365 days before the date of the general election. Since the election cannot be later than 28 January 2025, we are now in that regulated period, although we do not yet know for how long we have been in it!

The uncertainty about the beginning of the regulated period can cause difficulties for parties, particularly if a general election is called unexpectedly early. The Electoral Commission guidance tells parties that they should "behave as if you are in a regulated period, if you are not already doing so. This is because if the [general election] is called within the next 365 days, we are already in the regulated period now."

The ‘long campaign’ (or the pre-regulated period for candidate spending) refers to the period starting 55-months after a Parliament first sits – for this Parliament, 17 July 2024 – and ending when Parliament is dissolved, when the 'short campaign' then begins.

The timing of the election determines whether there is any 'long campaign' at all and, if there is one, its length (in 2019, for example, because the general election was called only 27 months after the Parliament first sat in 2017, there was no ‘long campaign’.)

If Parliament is dissolved before 17 July 2024, there will be no long campaign. If Parliament is dissolved after 17 July, the length of the 'long campaign' increases in line with how late the dissolution of Parliament occurs.

Because the length of the 'long campaign' is not known in advance, the relevant legislation provides for higher spending limits the longer the 'long campaign' turns out to be.

The ‘short campaign’ (or the regulated period for candidate spending) is the period when a person is formally considered a candidate, during which there is a limit on any spending that promotes that candidate.

Spending limits are higher for the 'long campaign' than for the 'short campaign'. Both spending limits increase in line with the number of electors in each constituency.

In November 2023, the Government introduced the Representation of the People (Variation of Election Expenses, Expenditure Limits and Donation etc. Thresholds) Order 2023. This Statutory Instrument (SI) raised the spending limits for all three categories of election spending as set out in the table below.

There has been an 80% increase in the party spending limit. In 2019 this stood at £30,000 for every constituency in which a party stood a candidate, translating into an effective spending limit of £18.9 million for parties with candidates in every seat in Great Britain. This has increased to £54,010 per constituency, thereby increasing the GB-wide spending limit for registered parties to £34.1 million.

Spending limits for the 'short' and 'long campaigns' apply differently to borough and county constituencies, as set out in the table below. The changes introduced by the Statutory Instrument increased the spending limit by just over 31% in each case.

The higher limit for county constituencies reflects the increased costs (for travel, direct mail, advertising and other campaign activities) generally incurred by campaigners in what are usually geographically larger and more rural constituencies.

Increase in general election spending limits • Explanatory Note: The figures for party spending are for a party standing in every seat in Great Britain. The percentage change figures for candidate spending assume a constituency with an average-sized electorate of 73,393.

Before 2023 RegulationsAfter 2023 Regulations% Change
Party spending£18.96 million£34.13 million+80.01%
Borough constituency ('short campaign')£8,700 + 6p per elector£11,390 + 8p per elector+31.73%
Borough constituency ('long campaign')£30,700 + 6p per elector£40,220 + 8p per elector+31.30%
County constituency ('short campaign')£8,700 + 9p per elector£11,390 + 12p per elector+31.96%
County constituency ('long campaign')£30,700 + 9p per elector£40,220 + 12p per elector+31.42%

The Government states that the changes were necessary in order to update campaign spending limits in line with inflation. The particularly large increase in party spending limits – 80% - reflects the fact that the limit had not been updated since it was first introduced in 2000.

Prior to 2010 there was no obligation on the Government to increase election campaign spending limits, but since 2010 the Government has been under a statutory requirement to either increase the limits in line with inflation once per Parliament or to lay a statement before Parliament explaining why it has chosen not to do so. In the 2010-15 and 2017-19 Parliaments the Government chose not to increase the limits and laid statements before both Houses of Parliament to that effect.

  • In 2015, the Government's statement said it would not increase the limits because "the current thresholds are well known and changes shortly before the General Election could lead to confusion". It stated that the sums would be reviewed in the next Parliament, in line with the statutory requirement to do so. However, the 2015-2017 Parliament proved to be too short for the statutory requirement to review the limits to come into effect.

  • In 2019, the Government's statement said that it "had no grounds to consider the existing sums in [the legislation] to be inappropriate. With the date now set for an early General Election on 12th December, we are now unable to prepare and lay secondary legislation by the end of this Parliament in any event."

The Representation of the People Act 1983 permits the Secretary of State to amend the limits for 'long' and 'short campaign' candidate spending using delegated legislation in the form of a Statutory Instrument. An equivalent power permitting Ministers to increase the limit for nationwide party spending is contained in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

The 1983 Act sets out that a Statutory Instrument increasing the spending limits:

  • is not laid before Parliament if the increase is solely to update the spending limits in line with inflation;

  • must be laid before Parliament if the increase is made on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission (because such a recommendation would likely be in pursuance of a substantive policy objective rather than simply maintaining the real value of campaign spending).

The Government’s decision to increase the spending limits in November 2023 was explicitly to uprate them to reflect the impact of inflation. The Representation of the People (Variation of Election Expenses, Expenditure Limits and Donation etc. Thresholds) Order 2023 was therefore not laid before Parliament.

The Electoral Commission expressed alarm about the decision, indicating that it had “not seen evidence” to support the inflation-related changes and that “any changes to spending or reporting thresholds must be supported by rigorous analysis, including on the likely impact on public confidence and transparency.”

However, the Government pressed ahead and MPs therefore had no oversight of or opportunity to approve the decision to increase spending limits for the general election.

In contrast two months later the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 (Amendment) Regulations 2024, which increased the spending limits for combined authority and combined county authority mayoral elections, was laid before Parliament. Laid under powers in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023 this primary legislation required that both Houses of Parliament actively debate and approve the Order.

Similarly, a Statutory Instrument which exempted reasonable security expenses from candidate spending limits was also laid before Parliament and subject to active debate and approval by both Houses.

However, the Statutory Instrument increasing spending limits for candidates in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in line with inflation – published on the same day as the general election spend SI in November 2023 – was laid before Parliament but did not require debate and approval by MPs or Peers.

So there have been four different Statutory Instruments introducing new spending limits for different elections and four different approaches to parliamentary scrutiny of those changes. This illustrates the extent to which the law surrounding election campaign spending limits has become a complex patchwork of different legislative regulations and requirements, and in which Parliament’s role in scrutinising and approving the changes is now muddled and inconsistent. Given the scale of the sum of money involved and the relative importance of the elections it is odd that the increase in spending for local elections is deemed to be sufficiently important to merit parliamentary scrutiny, but the increase in general election spending limits does not.

The same Statutory Instrument that increased election spending limits also increased the donation reporting thresholds for the central party and local constituency parties, as well as the reporting and registration thresholds for so-called 'unincorporated associations' (UAs).

Political parties are required to submit quarterly reports to the Electoral Commission showing the donations and loans they accepted during the last quarter. During general election campaigns these reports must be submitted weekly.

Parties must report donations and loans above a specific threshold (see the table below), as well as all donations and loans above £500 from the same source that cumulatively add up to that threshold. Parties that have accounting units (e.g., a local constituency party) have additional reporting requirements.

Unincorporated associations must register with the Electoral Commission if they make political contributions above the registration threshold. Reporting requirements similar to those for political parties then apply: UAs must report all gifts above a certain value, all gifts worth more than £500 that come from the same source and cumulatively total over the threshold, and any additional gift above another smaller threshold that is given by a source who has already provided another gift in the same year.

Changes to donation reporting thresholds

CategoryBefore 2023 RegulationsAfter 2023 RegulationsChange
Central party£7,500£11,180+49.1%
Accounting unit (local party)£1,500£2,230+48.7%
Unincorporated associations (registration threshold)£25,000£37,270+49.1%
Unincorporated associations (reporting threshold)£7,500£11,180+49.1%
Unincorporated associations (additional gifts)£1,500£2,230+48.7%

The £500 limit, however, remains in place. While parties must report single gifts over £11,180 - or, a series of £500+ gifts that total over £11,180 - they are not obliged to report a series of gifts of £499 or less from a single source, regardless of the cumulative total of those donations combined. The same applies to unincorporated associations.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) have suggested that unincorporated associations are a "route for foreign money to influence UK elections". Not only are they not obliged to report a series of donations of £499 or less, but if they give less than £37,270 in political contributions, they have no obligation to report anything. Moreover, while UAs are permissible political donors, those who donate to UAs themselves are not required to be permissible political donors; UAs can receive money from overseas sources and donate that money to political parties.

The CSPL has also expressed concern that no transparency is required when UAs donate money to individual candidates rather than to parties.

The CSPL and Electoral Commission have both recommended that checks similar to the anti-money laundering checks imposed on businesses and charities - such as requirements to carry out risk assessments and to undertake due diligence for donors - ought to apply to election finance.

Amendments to the National Security Bill to do just that - which were approved by the House of Lords and supported by the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Sir Julian Lewis MP - were rejected by the Government in the House of Commons.

The latest boundary review was completed in June 2023 shortly before the statutory deadline of 1 July 2023. Prior to this the last completed boundary review was in 2010; subsequent reviews undertaken in 2013 and 2018 were not implemented due to political opposition, particularly around proposals to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600.

When determining the design of constituencies, the Boundary Commissions are required to adhere to certain requirements set out in relevant legislation, namely the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, as amended by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 and the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020.

One of the most important rules is the ‘electoral quota’, which requires constituencies to have an electorate within a five percent range of a specified number of people. That quota is based on the average number of electors per constituency and was determined for the purposes of the 2023 Review to be 73,393, giving a five percent range of 69,724 to 77,062 electors per seat.

For geographical reasons five constituencies – Ynys Mon, Orkney and Shetland, Na h’Eileanan an Iar, Isle of Wight West, and Isle of Wight East - are deemed ‘protected constituencies’ and so are exempt from the quota.

Following three rounds of extensive public consultation in 2021 and 2022, the final recommendations of the four national Commissions were submitted to the Speaker of the House of Commons on 27 June 2023. The Speaker laid the Review recommendations before Parliament the following day. No further parliamentary action was required: MPs do not debate or approve the recommendations. The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 as amended by the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 does not provide for a vote in Parliament, thus ensuring MPs cannot block the recommendations, as they had done previously in 2013 and 2018.

The Government is statutorily required to submit the final Reviews to the Privy Council in the form of a draft Order in Council no later than four months after the final reviews have been laid before Parliament.

The Parliamentary Constituencies Order 2023 was formally approved by the King at the Privy Council on 15 November 2023.

The new boundaries make notable changes to the distribution of seats between the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. In terms of the size of the electorate in each constituency Scotland and Wales had become proportionally over-represented and England under-represented over the period in which the previous boundaries were in place. As a result, the Review recommended the removal of eight seats from Wales and two seats from Scotland, with all 10 seats being redistributed to England. Within England, the South of England has gained seats at the expense of the North of England.

Constituency boundaries: change in number of seats per nation of the UK

Seats: Old BoundariesSeats: New BoundariesChange
England533543+10
Scotland5957-2
Wales4032-8
Northern Ireland18180

Constituency boundaries: change in number of seats per English region

Seats: Old BoundariesSeats: New BoundariesChange
East of England5861+3
South East8491+7
South West5558+3
London7375+2
TOTAL: South of England270285+15
West Midlands5957-2
East Midlands4647+1
TOTAL: Midlands105104-1
Yorkshire and the Humber54540
North West7573-2
North East2927-2
TOTAL: North of England158154-4

Estimates have previously suggested the boundary changes will marginally benefit the Conservative Party. Had the nationwide results of the 2019 election been applied to the new boundaries, the estimates indicate the Conservative Party would have won seven more seats, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats losing two and three seats respectively.

However, because of the different concentrations of parties’ voters, the existing boundaries were already working against Labour. John Curtice points out that the changes merely entrench an existing bias to the Conservative Party in the electoral system. If the Conservatives and Labour tied on 39% of the vote under the old boundaries, the Conservatives would have won 290 seats to Labour’s 267. Under the new boundaries, that 23-seat gap is amplified to as much as a 50-seat gap. The consequence for Labour is that in order to win a majority, they will need a slightly larger swing than they did before the boundary changes.

Estimated effect of boundary changes on 2019 election results

PartySeats: 2019 General Election (Old Boundaries)Seats: 2019 General Election (New Boundaries)Change
Conservative365372+7
Labour203201-2
SNP48480
Liberal Democrats118-3
Plaid Cymru42-2
Green110
Others18180

The scale of boundary changes across the country means that on election night, the broadcasters will not be able to use the 2019 constituency results for direct comparison between parliamentary seats. Instead, they will use a new baseline comprising predictions based on these new boundaries to calculate the electoral swings and the electoral maps.

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill (DPDI Bill) currently going through Parliament contains measures to change the way political parties can use personal data. It is likely – although not certain – that the provisions will be in force in time for the general election.

Where parties, candidates or campaigners use personal data for unsolicited campaigning, it is currently classified as “direct marketing”, which is subject to the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (the “PEC Regulations”).

The PEC Regulations permit organisations to send direct marketing communications (such as an email) to a person if that person’s details were collected during the sale of a product or service, the email is in relation to similar products or services, and the person can easily opt out of receiving it. This rule – known as the “soft opt-in” – only applies at present to commercial organisations.

The DPDI Bill will extend the soft opt-in to cover communications that have a charitable, non-commercial or, political objective. That will enable political parties to send communications to a person without obtaining their prior consent to receive such communications as long as the communications are to further a political objective that the person had previously expressed an interest in supporting.

Clause 114 of the DPDI Bill will also empower the Secretary of State to introduce further exemptions to the PEC Regulations’ direct marketing restrictions, if those exemptions are for communications that are carried out by a party, candidate, or accredited campaigner for the purposes of “democratic engagement”.

The DPDI Bill defines democratic engagement in such a way that it includes not just encouraging people to register to vote or reminding them about the date of polling day, but also encouraging them to support or donate to a particular candidate or campaign.

There are concerns, expressed by Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State, Sir Chris Bryant MP, during passage of the Bill that the Government may use the Clause 114 powers to temporarily switch-off some of the direct marketing rules in the run-up to the general election.

If the Bill's provisions are enacted in their present form, then anyone who has previously given their email address to a political party may see an increase in the volume of unsolicited political material in their inbox in future.

Some form of statutory requirement to include imprints on campaigning material has existed for almost 150 years. Section 18 of the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act 1883 required every election placard or poster to "bear upon the face thereof the name and address of the printer and publisher thereof".

The relevant contemporary legislation - Section 110 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and Section 143 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 - now require election material to contain the name and address of the printer, the promoter (often an election agent), and the person on behalf of whom the material is published (i.e., the candidate). But that requirement previously only applied to printed campaign material.

The Elections Act 2022 extended imprint requirements to digital campaign material. Digital material must now also include the name and address of the promoter and the candidate. The Electoral Commission's guidance provides a list of examples of digital campaign material to which the requirement may apply, which includes pop-up ads, social media posts, adverts on websites and search engines, text messages or messages on other social media apps, videos, and images. The imprint must also be such that, if the material were republished by someone who does not alter the material, the information would be retained as part of the material when republished.

If it is not "reasonably practicable" to include the imprint as part of the digital material, then the information can alternatively be displayed in a location that is "directly accessible" from the digital material. During committee stage consideration of the Elections Bill, the Minister suggested that a text-only tweet could be an example of digital campaign material where an imprint would not be reasonably practicable, since the character limit means that including a digital imprint would usually leave very little room for any other content. Instead, it was suggested that a link could be included in the material or the imprint placed in the biography of the user's profile.

The debate about voter ID and other electoral changes has been almost wholly focused on their impact on voter turnout. There has been little public and political discussion of the consequences arising from so many changes to the electoral system in a short period of time on electoral administrators and polling station staff

Returning officers are already reporting problems recruiting an adequate number of staff to oversee the elections. After the 2023 local elections, nearly a quarter of returning officers said they had experienced significant issues recruiting polling station staff. Sixteen percent also complained of significant issues retaining staff between initial recruitment and polling day, with several last-minute dropouts occurring after training had been provided. A survey of 171 administrators by the Local Government Information Unit similarly indicated that 88% were having problems recruiting sufficient staff for polling stations and 82% said that recruitment had become more difficult compared with previous elections.

As with voter ID, the problems faced by returning officers at a general election are likely to be much greater than at local elections. In 2023 local elections were held in only 230 of England’s 317 councils. This enabled returning officers to ‘borrow’ polling staff and volunteers from neighbouring authorities that were not holding elections. In a recent report the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) noted one case where the returning officer reported that 37.5% of their presiding officers had been “borrowed” from neighbouring authorities. That sharing of resources may not be possible in a general election when every constituency in the country must operate polling stations simultaneously.

Those staff that are in place to run the general election will also face a heavier administrative burden than at a local election, not least because of the significantly higher turnout for a parliamentary election. The turnout at the 2023 local election was 32% in England; turnout at the general election is likely to be at least double.

The need to check voter ID and to administer the new postal voting requirements at the polling station for twice as many people as at the local elections may lead to delays and queues, particularly if there are staffing shortages.

In their post-local-election report last year, the AEA said that “pressures for the next [general election] will be exacerbated” by the second tranche of Elections Act 2022 measures, including new restrictions on postal voting and the extension of the overseas franchise, all of which have been commenced since the 2023 local elections.

As the AEA has noted, the introduction of postal voting on demand and rolling registration, and online registration capability up to 12 working days before the poll has all added to the complexity of planning and preparing for an election the date of which is currently unknown, increasing significantly the risk that something may go badly wrong.

The Constitution Unit recently hosted an expert panel on the changes and challenges in regulation UK elections. Panellists included Professor Alistair Clark, the co-editor of our journal Parliamentary Affairs.

A recording of the event can be viewed below:

England, M. (26 April 2024), General election rules and regulations: what has changed?, (Hansard Society)

Who funds this work?

The Hansard Society's work on delegated legislation is generously supported by The Legal Education Foundation

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News / General election called: What now for Parliament? - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 36

This week, we dive into the unexpected political shake-up in Westminster, where Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a general election has thrown Parliament into turmoil. The Prime Minister’s surprising move to hold the election in early July, rather than waiting until Autumn, has sent shockwaves through the political landscape.

24 May 2024
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Support / 80th Anniversary Appeal: support our work to make Parliament more effective

Faith in parliamentary democracy is waning at a critical time as we confront domestic and international challenges that are as significant as any the country has faced since the Society was founded 80 years ago.

11 May 2024
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News / Democracy is in danger, warns Theresa May - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 35

In a powerful Churchill Attlee Lecture commemorating the Hansard Society's 80th anniversary, former Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a stark warning about the state of democracy. She expressed grave concerns about the waning trust in democratic institutions, particularly among young people.

17 May 2024
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News / Post Office Horizon scandal: What is Parliament doing about it? - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 33

Should Parliament simply overturn the convictions of postmasters caught up in the Post Office Horizon scandal? That’s what the Government proposes to do through the Post Office (Horizon system) Offences Bill. But quashing of convictions is normally a matter for the courts. Some MPs have misgivings about setting a constitutional precedent as well as practical concerns about how the Bill will be implemented. We talk to the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill MP.

03 May 2024
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