It’s a long, long way from Texas: why the elections bill must be rejected to keep it that way

Most mornings, over tea and toast, I read the online newsletter by Heather Cox-Richardson. She’s a history professor at Boston College and has a huge global following. I find her daily accounts of events in the US – current and historical – make fascinating reading and fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge.

Since last year’s US presidential election in particular, she has described the moves by many in the US Republican Party (the GOP) to take the party even further to the right, embracing a distinctly pro-Trump, extremist agenda: aggressive, intolerant and intensely nationalistic. She also is persuaded that the Republicans fully intend to consolidate future governmental power after the 2024 Election, with little or no opportunity for a viable Democratic Party challenge. Ever.

There are distinct parallels with the political landscape in the UK.

According to Google, it’s 4819 miles from Austin, Texas to my home in east Devon. Apologies to any Texans reading this – no offence intended – but why doesn’t that distance seem nearly enough? Well, perhaps because on 1 September 2021, over 600 new Bills were signed into law by the Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, a committed Republican (‘GOP’) loyalist. Trump recently endorsed him for re-election in 2022: it looks like a formality.

“Guns.” by seanjsavage is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A catalogue of alarming legislation

Included within that mass of legislation were Bills permitting the carrying of hand-guns in public places without any background checks on the owners; exempting Texans from new Federal gun control regulations; contractual protections for oil, gas and firearms businesses; changes to the Social Studies curriculum in schools, preventing teachers and students from discussing current events or widely circulated controversial issues including systemic racism or the history of slavery (‘Critical Race Theory’); funding an educational committee to promote patriotic historical events in Texas; introducing a requirement that State-funded sports teams have the national anthem played before each match or game; and criminalising ‘homeless camping’ in public places, now punishable with a $500 fine. You can detect a common theme.

Perhaps most controversial of all, there’s a Bill which prohibits abortion later than six weeks into pregnancy. This Bill opens the way for a ‘vigilante’ system of policing, whereby anyone can sue a clinic or someone suspected of aiding and abetting the woman concerned, with a $10,000 ‘bounty’ plus legal costs if successful. By a 5-4 vote, the US Supreme Court denied an appeal by abortion providers and others to block the enforcement of this particular Bill, as has been widely reported, and the very real threat to the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973.

Voter Suppression

Given that ‘when America sneezes, the world catches a cold’, we should be very worried about what is enshrined within Abbott’s legislative sign-offs. Texans will now also be subject to what are termed ‘voter suppression’ measures, piled high in various State capitals across the US in the wake of the 2020 US presidential election result – which is still disputed by Trump and his GOP supporters despite a total absence of any evidence that they have a case to bring.  

These measures include:

  • the empowerment of partisan poll-watchers to intimidate voters and election workers at polling stations without fear of sanction by the courts or by election officials;
  • the criminalisation of anyone assisting voters who have language or mobility issues;
  • the banning of 24-hour drive-through voting facilities;
  • enhanced voter ID checks, and limits on postal ballots.

Republican strategy to secure power indefinitely

These new laws and procedures, replicated to varying degrees in 18 US States, are calculated to disadvantage many prospective voters from ethnic minorities, people of colour and urban dwellers.– On the pretext of preventing electoral fraud, just as is being claimed by the UK government, it appears that these laws have been introduced simply to ensure that the GOP regains control of the House of Representatives in 2022, and after victory in the 2024 Presidential Election, that the Republican Party remains in power for the foreseeable future.

Biden and the Democrats are valiantly trying to fight back with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act  and the For the Peoples Act, but it will be a hard job to pass these into Federal law given the even split of parties in the Senate, and the highly divisive and arcane procedural processes which need to take place for that to happen.

Does all this stuff about ‘voter suppression’ sound at all familiar to British ears?

It should do. For ‘Republican Party’, substitute ‘Conservative Party’. In recent months, West Country Bylines has reported frequently about how accepted British democratic norms have been subverted and cynically undermined by the current tenant of No. 10, a proven liar who masquerades as the UK’s prime minister. Let’s not forget his complicit Cabinet of Sycophants, all those acquiescent, opportunist Tory MPs and the oh-so-enthusiastic Vote Leave staffers who populate various Whitehall offices as SpAds. And let’s not forget, either, one particular former ‘Very Special Adviser’, the man who was behind so much of what took place in the run-up to both the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the December 2019 General Election…Dominic Cummings.

On Tuesday 7 September the Elections Bill gets its second reading in Parliament.

Ostensibly to make elections ‘safe, fair and transparent’ – even though the incidence of fraud is 0.00001 per cent – it contains a number of controversial proposals, including:

  • the mandatory showing of photo ID before you can obtain a ballot paper for national or local elections;
  • limits on the voting rights of EU nationals who settle in the UK post-31 December 2020;
  • a wholesale removal of the independence of the Electoral Commission, replaced by direct government control;
  • changes to the validity period of a postal vote application and the permitted number of proxy votes;
  • introduction of the regulation and registration of third party campaigning groups;
  • and limits on spending by third parties working simultaneously with established political parties (which may impact ‘progressive alliances’)

There is a campaign of resistance

The Electoral Reform Society has written a detailed summary of the implications of the Bill, while Stephen Kinnock MP gives his own concise interpretation of the Bill here. Campaign group ‘Best for Britain’ has co-ordinated an open letter about the potential impact of the Election Bill, says The Guardian of 5 September: “Elections bill is a power grab to rig polls in favour of Tories”. The letter comes from charities including Save the Children, independent campaign groups such as Greenpeace, and the trades union movement. They condemn the legislation as “an attack on the UK’s proud democratic tradition and some of our most fundamental rights”.

The TUC’s Frances O’Grady warns the Bill “could also be used to deter organised opposition before an election is even announced, with ministers able to instruct the Commission to retroactively criminalise groups and individuals for action undertaken up to one year before an election that the minister for the Cabinet Office defines as ‘campaigning’.

“For example, activities undertaken before an election is announced are currently not considered electoral activity by the commission, but a minister could change that guidance so a group demonstrating for higher wages for NHS workers could be criminalised if a snap election is called six months later.”

The unholy trinity of bills which threaten democracy in the UK

Together with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill 2021, and the Nationality and Borders Bill 2021, the Elections Bill 2021 makes for an unholy trinity of proposed Tory legislation in the months ahead. Russell England’s  article for West Country Bylines should be compulsory reading for anyone who is remotely concerned about the threat to our democracy. The Tories are gradually slotting together all the pieces of the power-grab jigsaw in their favour, one by one. 

On the Elections Bill, Cat Smith, the shadow minister for democracy, puts it very succinctly: “This is all about the government rigging democracy in favour of the Conservative party.” Absolutely.

Just like the Republican Party in the US, this is a Tory Party which is hell-bent on staying in power for ever – and at any cost. Except that the cost will be borne by an awful lot of people who aren’t able to bear it, emotionally or economically.