(Title Image: Electoral Reform Society)
AMs have their own definition of what “historic” means, but there was another self-proclaimed historic moment yesterday afternoon with the final vote on the Senedd & Elections Bill – the first stage in a two-stage process of electoral reform which will likely run into the Sixth Senedd.
Strengthening the foundations of democracy
Llywydd, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion), ran through some of the key elements of the Bill, including changing the name of the legislature, lowering the voting age to 16, changes to disqualification criteria and other changes such as granting voting rights to qualifying foreign nationals. It was a vote to “strengthen the foundations of our parliamentary democracy here in Wales.”
The Conservatives took exception to one element of the Bill – extending voting rights to foreign nationals, which they believed was being forced through with little scrutiny:
“….in introducing the right for foreign nationals to vote, this Bill, in our view, becomes unsupportable. It’s a major change to a Commission Bill that the Commission did not want. And I do remind people that this novel idea is not common practice anywhere else, as far I’m aware, and it also brings with it the right to stand for this institution, and presumably hold office in it. It’s been completely unscrutinised, introduced by the Government without scrutiny, introduced at Stage 2. It’s quite a shocking thing to do on a constitutional Bill that requires….a supermajority. It’s quite insulting, frankly, to those who have genuine concerns about the lack of scrutiny.”
– David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central)
While the Llywydd rejected the idea that it’s being forced through – as the required amendments were passed at Stage 3 – with the withdrawal of Tory support and without Brexit Party support for changes to the voting age as well, the vote was set to become a lot tighter.
Plaid Cymru remained disappointed at the bilingual name. While they would support the Bill as it was, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said it was a missed opportunity to show the Welsh language belonged to everyone, like the national anthem. He blamed a lack of confidence or even fear.
A compromise between strongly held views
Responding on behalf of the government the Counsel General, Jeremy Miles (Lab, Neath), described the Bill as “a compromise between very strongly held views” – including the name issue, responsibilities concerning the Electoral Commission and the issue of foreign voting rights.
In light of Conservative complaints, he pointed to the consultation which showed that 66% of respondents supported all legal residents in Wales having full voting rights regardless of nationality or citizenship.
Under the requirements of the Wales Act 2017, the Bill needed a minimum of two-thirds of AMs (40 AMs) to vote in favour – and it happened….just.