This week the constitution minister, Chloe Smith, added detail to plans for an Elections Bill – which the government says will ensure our ‘electoral law continues to be fair and transparent’.
Among an eclectic mix of changes, the bill will contain provisions to impose mandatory voter ID for Westminster elections and all elections in England.
This was first set out in the Queen’s Speech, and for all the rhetoric around ‘safety’ at elections, the policy of mandatory strict ID presents a significant threat to democratic access and equality.
Millions of people lack the strictest forms of required documentation, such as a passport or driving licence. Research by the Electoral Commission in 2015 shows that around 3.5 million citizens (7.5% of the electorate) do not have access to photo ID.
And if voter identification requirements were restricted to passports or driving licenses, around 11 million citizens (24% of the electorate) could potentially be disenfranchised. In a General Election, that means tens of thousands of voters being denied a say.
Identification requirements risk undermining the principles of fair and equal participation that have been at the heart of British democracy since the adoption of universal, equal suffrage in 1928.
And for what?
Ministers say it is to prevent the ‘unacceptable potential’ for fraud. In other words, it isn’t happening, but there’s a tiny chance it could, at some point. Therefore, voting should be made harder for everyone.
This is the equivalent of saying there is the unacceptable potential a pigeon could fly through your window, therefore all windows must be sealed shut.
In the 2018 and 2019 voter ID pilots – where the policy was first trialled – over 1,000 people were turned away without ID, in a handful of council areas, and did not return. In other words, they were denied a vote. This was deemed a ‘success’ by ministers.
Spread that over a general election, this ‘success’ looks like disenfranchisement on an industrial scale.
Make no mistake, this is an expensive distraction. Research by the Cabinet Office following the 2018 voter ID pilots showed that implementing mandatory voter ID across Great Britain could cost up to £20m per general election, with the main drivers being additional staff costs. Even the trials of the policy, in just 15 council areas, cost £3.6m.
The Elections Bill was previously called the Electoral Integrity Bill, which sadly shared its name with strict voter ID legislation introduced in Georgia this February, after the Republicans lost last year’s presidential election.
This bill will face similar accusations of voter suppression. Marginalised groups are less likely to have ID, and requiring identification has the potential to discriminate against certain groups, despite claims to the contrary. In July 2020, it was reported that the government may have misled MPs when it claimed that the ‘evidence shows there is no impact on any particular demographic group’. They had not collected that data.
There is plenty that can be done to improve fairness in elections. Westminster’s voting system is horrendously warped, leaving the vast majority of voters without fair representation each election, and forcing millions more to hold their nose and vote tactically. Parties can get millions of votes and zero seats. It is fuelling a pandemic of distrust and alienation with politics.
What makes matters worse is the fact that the groups most likely to be adversely affected by voter ID are the same groups who are already least likely to be registered to vote. According to the latest data from the Electoral Commission, around 17 percent of eligible voters in Great Britain are missing from the electoral register. Introducing automatic voter registration would be a massive boost for political equality in the UK.
Voters think our voting system is safe and secure. What people are less sure about is whether it’s fair – which is why the movement for proportional representation is growing. Get involved.
Sign our petition to protect the right to vote