Has the Government misled Parliament over voter ID?

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 30th July 2020

A series of Freedom of Information requests has revealed that Government departments do not know who will be hardest hit by mandatory voter ID plans…despite ministers repeatedly claiming that “the evidence shows there is no impact on any particular demographic group.”

Cat Smith MP made a series of Freedom of Information requests to the Home Office, Passport Office and Department for Transport, all of which showed that they do not hold data on possession of passport/driving licence ID by ethnicity. Similar FoI requests by the ERS also came back with nothing.

What evidence we do have suggests that those who lack some forms of photo ID are disproportionately non-white, while those on lower incomes and older voters could also be adversely affected. Equality groups have previously warned of an electoral ‘Windrush 2.0 scandal’ if voter ID is imposed.

For example, a survey by by the Department for Transport found that 76% of the white population hold a driving licence compared with just 52% of black people.

We’ve long pointed to the Government’s determination to import ‘US-style voter suppression’ policies while ignoring genuine threats to democracy, as outlined in the recent ISC Russia Report.

On 11 June 2020, minister Chloe Smith responded to a question f on Voter ID, saying: “The evidence shows there is no impact on any particular demographic group”. Later in questions, she said: “The evidence of our pilots shows that there is no impact on any particular demographic group from this policy”. But the Electoral Commission were clear that no such conclusions could be made from the local pilots.

So how ministers can claim that mandatory voter ID will not discriminate – when they have apparently failed to gather any evidence – is baffling and looks deeply misleading.

Studies in the US show that in places without universal ID, such laws unfairly lock millions out of the ballot box, skewing the system and deepening political inequalities.

Since this policy was first announced in December 2016, the Government has received multiple warnings from charities, civil society figures and campaign groups that mandatory voter ID – if rolled out nationally – could pull up the drawbridge for millions of voters.

In 2018, the ERS led a coalition of academics and charities – including Operation Black Vote, Age UK, the National Union of Students, the Salvation Army and Stonewall – in condemnation of the Government’s proposals, highlighting the negative impact it will have on disadvantaged and excluded groups..

The independent Equality and Human Rights Commission also notified the Government that voter ID will have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and people with disabilities.

But with apparently no active effort to assess the impact of these proposals, ministers are playing a very dangerous game indeed.

There are urgent problems with democracy which need solving: a warped voting system and millions left off the electoral register. Instead, this show-your-papers policy is an undemocratic distraction which is likely to hit some groups much harder than others. We must not import US-style voter suppression to the UK.

These plans have come under renewed fire from a wide range of groups. Dennis Reed, Director of Silver Voices, the UK-wide membership organisation for the over 60s, told the ERS:

“These findings cast serious doubt on whether there is robust information from the pilots on the impact of voter ID on older voters. Up to 2 million pensioners do not possess photo ID and there appears to be no reliable estimates of how many would be turned away from polling stations if voter ID was to be introduced nationally.

“We also need comprehensive survey evidence on how many older voters would not attempt to vote at all, if voter ID was introduced.”

Human rights campaigners at Liberty said mandatory voter ID was a solution in search of a problem – given that there was just one prosecution for ‘personation’ fraud in 2019. Out of 59 million votes cast.

Liberty’s Sam Grant said: “Voting is one of our most basic rights. By demanding that we all show ID in order to vote, the Government is putting in place serious barriers to democracy.

“For people who are already under-represented in the political system, this is particularly concerning. The fact the Government doesn’t have the evidence to understand what impact this will have shows it is disregarding these risks and trying to plough ahead with plans that threaten the basic foundations of our democratic system.”

See the full report about the April 2019 pilots from the Electoral Reform Society here.

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