This week the Cabinet Office launched its call for councils to join a second-round of voter ID pilots, due to take place in next May’s elections.
In the prospectus, ministers are keen to frame the last attempt a ‘success’ – despite 350 people being denied a vote. And it’s not the first time the government has sought to frame them in a positive light.
For the Cabinet Office, 350 people being disenfranchised is a success – while just 28 allegations of ‘personation’ fraud in 2017 necessitates sweeping changes to our elections.
What the government has recognised in its prospectus is that the five areas in which Voter ID was trialled this year were too similar, all based in the south of England.
The plea for more councils states:
“We are looking to take forward pilots in authorities representing a diverse range of relevant socio-economic and demographic conditions and different types of areas (e.g. metropolitan, rural, urban).”
It’s a welcome intention, given – as the Electoral Commission has noted – May’s trials categorically failed to show that already marginalised groups would not be disenfranchised, raising real concerns for political equality.
Yet even if a greater diversity of participating councils is achieved, further trials at local elections will provide little insight into the impact voter ID might have in General Elections – in which turnout would be substantially higher and a much broader range of people would want to participate.
Chloe Smith’s appeal for council involvement (published by LGC) highlight that the government is wearing blinkers over Voter ID: despite evidence that already-marginalised groups will suffer the most from ID requirements, it is pushing ahead with the policy regardless.
This mistake is evident in the Minister for the Constitution’s description of Voter ID as a “simple requirement.”
While producing a passport or driving licence might be simple for many people, it is far more complicated for others. Ministers would be wise to remember the plight of those of the Windrush generation threatened with deportation.
Also misguided is the continued comparison to Northern Ireland where the Minister notes “there is no evidence that this [Voter ID] has affected the numbers who vote.”
What she frequently fails to mention is that in Northern Ireland, a free Electoral Identity Card has been offered since 2002 – and prior to the introduction of mandatory voter ID it experienced extremely high levels of documented, in-person electoral fraud.
That meant introducing Voter ID was a proportional response to a significant problem. The situation is entirely different in the rest of the UK: as independent fact-checking experts FullFact have noted: “In a single day across five councils [this May], twice as many people didn’t vote due to having incorrect ID, as have been accused of personation in eight years in the whole of the UK.”
The Cabinet Office claim their push for mandatory ID has been ‘smooth running’ so far. Even if that were the case, it is easy to run something smoothly if millions of pounds are being poured in. At a cost of up to £20m per General Election, voters may begrudge this costly experiment.
Yet after years of cut-backs, council electoral offices could be excused for wanting funding to improve democratic engagement – not having their workloads further stretched in order to undermine it.
With so many pressing challenges for our democracy – from fake news to an unregulated ‘wild west in campaigning – these trials are a dangerous distraction.
To lose one honest voter is an error. To lose thousands is a tragedy – and one that we can avert. So for all ministers’ efforts to rope councils into this policy, we can’t help feel they’d be better spent promoting greater democratic engagement – not erecting additional barriers.