UK government’s mandatory voter ID plans slammed by US civil rights groups

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 4th March 2021

Leading US civil rights groups have sounded the alarm over UK government plans to exclude those who lack ID from the polling station.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and Commons Cause – three of the biggest US equality groups – have all raised concerns about strict voter ID being imposed in the UK, following the US’ experience where it has often been seen as a tool of ‘voter suppression’ to prevent certain groups from taking part.

The UK government is due to introduce a bill in the spring, the so-called Electoral Integrity Bill, to make photo ID mandatory from 2023 for all UK-wide and English elections. But the ERS and others have long warned the plans risk making it harder for millions of voters who lack photo ID to take part in democracy.

One leading US civil rights group told the Guardian this week: “The real reason these laws are passed is to suppress the vote, and that is in fact what happens.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center spokesperson added: “There are certain communities that do not possess the required ID, or the underlying documents required to get the ID, and so it makes it harder for those folks to vote. That is what these laws are designed to do, and that is in fact what they do.”

Molly McGrath, a voting rights campaign strategist for the ACLU, told the paper voter ID is “not about proving who you are – it’s about excluding the people who are least likely to have that ID”.

She said: “I can go to almost any place and find somebody who’s been disenfranchised. I’ve never gone to a food bank and not found somebody who needs an ID so they can vote.”

There was just one proven case of voter ‘personation’ – the crime ID is supposed to prevent – following the 2019 election.

Sylvia Albert, the director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a Washington DC-based civil rights group added: “[Politicians] try to say that they want to protect the integrity of the election, but the reality that our elections have strong integrity,” she said. “By doing this you’re actually undermining their integrity… Instituting aspects of voter suppression, including voter ID, is allowing the politicians to choose their voters, and that is not the strength of a democracy.”

Millions of people lack photo ID in the UK – making the government’s plans for mandatory ID deeply concerning when there is no evidence basis to justify it.

This policy could lock out huge numbers of voters from our democracy. There are far more pressing issues the government should be putting its energies into right now, rather than spending up to £18m per election on this dangerous distraction.

Rather than putting up barriers to voters and encouraging scaremongering, the government should be trying to restore trust in politics and boost engagement.

Voter ID – the worrying reality

There was not been a single example of personation – the type of fraud the trials are intended to prevent – in any of the voter ID pilot areas in the last decade.

In contrast, 350 people turned away from the polling station and didn’t return in 2018 local ID trials.

Meanwhile, 700 people denied a vote in just 10 areas in 2019 trials, with them turned away and not returning.

In total, that’s over 1,000 people in total denied a vote over the two trials, in just a handful of council areas. When used for a UK-wide election, the numbers would be far higher.

Of 1,500 people surveyed in a BMG poll for the ERS, voter ID ranked second to last in terms of people’s priorities for democracy.

In the 2011 Census, 9.5 million people stated they did not hold a passport, 9 million do not have a driving licence and in 2013/14 1.7 million lack even a bank account. That’s why the ERS has condemned the ID plans as risking disenfranchising voters on an ‘industrial scale’. These plans must be halted while ministers focus on the real issues facing our democracy.

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