UK election watchdog warns bill with government oversight threatens independence
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UK election watchdog warns bill with government oversight threatens independence

The UK’s independent elections regulatory agency and watchdog, the Electoral Commission, Monday urged the government to reconsider proposed changes to its oversight arrangements in a public letter. The Electoral Commission warned that the new changes will impact the agency’s independence.

The Electoral Commission issued the letter in response to a controversial elections bill, which is currently under consideration in the House of Lords. The Elections Bill includes sweeping changes to UK election conduct and procedures.

The bill contains changes to government oversight of the Electoral Commission. Specifically, the bill would permit government control of the commission’s operational functions and decision-making. The Electoral Commission explained that the bill would allow the governing party to shape how electoral law is applied to them and their political competitors.

Though the current government has vowed not to abuse these powers, the commission is concerned about granting future governments the ability to do so. The Electoral Commission argued that the bill would shift the commission’s accountability from the UK parliaments to the government in power, essentially eliminating their independence. The Electoral Commission would become an arm of the governing party.

The Electoral Commission also stated that a shift in oversight has no precedent in other countries with similar commissions. The commission also noted that the UK is a member of the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission. The code requires that elections be conducted with transparency, impartiality and independence from political motivations. According to the letter, the Electoral Commission believes that the proposed election bill would significantly alter, and perhaps eliminate, those very standards from UK elections.

The Electoral Commission noted, “[t]he Commission’s independent role in the electoral system must be clear for voters and campaigners to see, and preserved in electoral law.” As such, the commission asked the government to reconsider and remove the oversight changes from the bill.