How does mandatory voter ID disenfranchise the public?

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 4th December 2018

The government is set to face a legal challenge to its plans to ban people without ID from voting across the UK – starting with the trials it intends to run at the 2019 local elections in England.

The case is being brought by Neil Coughlan, a voluntary worker from Braintree (one of next year’s trial areas) who does not have access to photo ID and is thus crowdfunding for a legal challenge to this policy.

The ERS has long warned about the potentially disenfranchising effects of voter ID and urged the government to rethink its plans to impose mandatory ID.

We now know that 350 people were denied their vote in the 2018 local elections because they did not have ID: twice as many people as have been accused of personation – the type of fraud mandatory ID aims to prevent – in eight years across the entire UK.

But how exactly does voter ID disenfranchise the public?

  1. Possession of ID is not universal 

Research by the Electoral Commission shows that around 3.5 million citizens (7.5% of the electorate) do not have access to photo ID.

If voter identification requirements were restricted to passports or driving licenses, around 11 million citizens (24% of the electorate) could potentially be disenfranchised. Getting ID costs time and money, which some citizens may not be able to invest.

  1. Marginalised groups are less likely to have ID

Women, those living in urban areas, the under 20s and over 65s were less likely to hold a driving license. Indeed, since the 1990s, possession of a driving license has dropped by 40 percent among under 20s – making it a poor basis for a voter ID policy.

  1. Free or low-cost ID cards are not available in the UK

Possession of ID is unequal across demographic groups and geographical locations. As Dr Omar Khan, Director of the Runnymede Trust, has noted: “We know from the Windrush scandal that it can be difficult for minority groups to provide documents proving their identity, through no fault of their own.”

The financial and time costs mentioned above make it particularly less likely that marginalised groups hold photo identification. Research by the Electoral Commission found that older voters were less likely to have a passport, as were those living in Wales, where 80 percent of electors held this form of ID compared with 94 percent in London.

An oft-repeated argument in support of mandatory ID in the UK is that you need to show ID to vote in elections in most European countries.

But what supporters of voter ID fail to mention is that all EU member states, with the exception of Denmark and Ireland, have universal ID card schemes that are either free or low-cost. Furthermore, possession of some form of ID is mandatory in 21 EU states, which means that everyone has them and no groups are discriminated against.

Can’t we just use non-photo ID?

Some say that to mitigate potential disenfranchising effects of restrictive ID requirements, we should just use non-photographic ID. But this could do more harm than good – making it harder to vote for honest voters, while failing to tackle the alleged problems.

As the Electoral Commission has pointed out, non-photographic identity documents, such as a debit card, utility bill or poll card, wouldn’t offer the same level of proof of identity.

A warning from the US

Voter ID laws have been introduced in a number of US states in the past decade. At last month’s mid-term elections, voters in North Carolina and Arkansas approved ballot measures to introduce voter ID laws.

Like the UK, the US does not have universal ID and has similarly experienced extremely low levels of personation. Furthermore, as in the UK, certain factors, such as age, race, and income, significantly impact the likelihood of having appropriate identification.

The US case highlights the potential negative consequences of introducing voter ID. Studies have found that the introduction of voter ID requirements has reduced voter participation, and suggested that this was disproportionately high amongst racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as those from lower-income groups and with fewer educational qualifications.

These perceptions have not been improved by the fact that partisan interests have frequently been behind voter ID laws. Indeed, legal challenges have been brought against some of these laws on the grounds that they are specifically designed as a voter suppression mechanism.

A barrier to democracy

There is overwhelming opposition to putting up barriers to participation through the introduction of voter ID. Possession of ID is not universal and is particularly low among certain groups of voters.

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.

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