Rules for the voting booth

UK Election Law
May 26, 2006

Constitutional law is a neglected subject, election law even more so. Yet both raise fundamental questions about the working of democracy. Voting rights, as the late Lord Donaldson, when Master of the Rolls, pointed out, "are not like the air we breathe. They do not just happen. They have to be conferred, or at least defined...".

Bob Watt, senior lecturer in law at Essex University, seeks to do two things in UK Election Law: A Critical Examination to outline election law and to argue that elections have become a marketplace in which parties compete for the votes of consumers, rather than an exercise in democratic self-government, as liberals would wish. He has made a brave attempt at a synthesis but, sadly, it does not come off - perhaps it is impossible within just 237 pages. The result, unfortunately, is that UK Election Law is likely to confuse the beginner while having nothing to say to the expert.

The book's coverage of election law makes no claim to be comprehensive. Many topics, such as, for example, the law on parliamentary boundaries and on election broadcasting, are left untouched, while the brief analysis of electoral systems is somewhat garbled. The chapter on election expenses does not analyse the leading case, Bowman v United Kingdom, 1998, which posed a fundamental question: does the constitutional principle of freedom of speech override the value of a level playing field in election expenses? If it does, then there can be little justification for restricting campaign expenditure.

The political theory in the book is not solidly based. Watt follows John Stuart Mill in claiming that the vote is not so much a right as a trust for the public. He believes, therefore, that there is a civic duty to vote that should perhaps be enforced by law. He does not, however, consider the problems that have arisen in countries such as Australia, where voting is compulsory and elections can be decided by the "donkey vote", the vote of those who, being wholly uninterested in politics, endorse the first candidate whose name on the ballot catches their eye.

Election Law: A Critical Examination is a missed opportunity, and there is still no satisfactory textbook on election law capable of replacing Law and the Electoral Process by H. F. Rawlings, first published in 1988, and now showing its age.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, Oxford University.

UK Election Law: A Critical Examination. First Edition

Author - Bob Watt
Publisher - Glasshouse Press
Pages - 245
Price - £55.00 and £22.95
ISBN - 1 85941 998 4 and 916 X

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