Plans to introduce automatic voter registration in Wales moved a step closer as proposed legislation cleared its first hurdle in the Senedd.
Mick Antoniw said the Elections and Elected Bodies bill is an important step in reducing the democratic deficit in Wales and developing an electoral system fit for the 21st century.
If the bill becomes law, Welsh ministers will use the new powers to pilot adding eligible voters to the electoral register without the need to submit an application.
Mr Antoniw – who is counsel general, the Welsh Government’s chief legal adviser – stressed the importance of protecting vulnerable voters through anonymous registration.
He confirmed voters would be given 45 days’ notice to opt out or request to be registered anonymously, adding that a communications campaign would accompany any rollout.
He said implementation would coincide with the removal of the current open register.
The bill would create an electoral management board to oversee elections and a new online voter information programme which may include candidate statements.
It also proposes measures to increase diversity in Senedd and council elections, including resettlement payments for councillors who are voted out by the public.
John Griffiths, who chairs the Senedd’s local government committee, called for amendments to ensure the independence of the new electoral management board.
The board would sit under the soon-to-be renamed and repurposed Local Democracy and Boundary Commission, a Welsh Government-sponsored body.
Mr Griffiths said evidence to the committee, which produced a stage-one report on the bill, overwhelmingly supported the principle of automatic registration.
Calling for more safeguards, he said: “We feel strongly that, ultimately, automatic registration should only be implemented if the safety of vulnerable electors is guaranteed.”
The Labour MS for Newport East raised concerns that people who want to register anonymously will be required to provide evidence and review their application every year.
Mr Griffiths said: “Providing such evidence could be difficult for vulnerable people as it could be a reminder of traumatic experiences.”
He warned that if the process is too onerous, people could choose to opt out.
Sam Rowlands, the Tories’ shadow local government minister, said his party would back the bill at this stage but that support could be withdrawn if concerns are not addressed.
Raising the importance of choice, he pointed out that a majority of people in Wales have opted not to take part in every Senedd election since the dawn of devolution.
Mr Rowlands highlighted concerns from the Women’s Equality Network which has warned that even a closed register could pose a danger to the survivors of domestic abuse.
The former Conwy council leader said: “There is a risk that needs to be handled with the utmost sensitivity and this needs to be a core consideration of this bill.”
He also flagged RNIB Cymru’s concerns about the removal of existing provisions that ensure polling stations enable blind and partially sighted people to vote independently.
Plaid Cymru’s Sioned Williams and Labour’s Carolyn Thomas called for more financial support to enable those with caring responsibilities to stand for election.
Adam Price argued the bill – one of a trio of election-related bills to be considered by the Senedd this year – will strengthen Wales’ democracy.
“It’s very timely as it is 25 years since the creation of this Senedd,” said the former Plaid Cymru leader. “And in a year when the highest-ever percentage of the population of the globe, 40%, will be voting in elections – that’s four billion people.”
Mr Price, who represents Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, said the automatic registration will hopefully get more people to participate in Wales’ democratic processes.
He welcomed the bill’s provisions on under-represented groups, saying: “We can’t do our work of representing the people unless all people are represented.”
The ex-MP suggested Plaid Cymru could introduce amendments to tackle other challenges to democracy such as misinformation and the abuse of women in politics.
MSs unanimously agreed to the bill’s general principles and financial resolution, dispensing with the need for a vote following the debate on February 6.
The bill now moves to stage two which will see members consider detailed amendments.