Voter ID checks threaten to suppress voter rights ‘on industrial scale’

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 15th October 2019

The Windrush scandal showed what can happen when millions of people who lack ID are shut out by Government.

But the announcement in the Queen’s Speech proposing mandatory voter ID checks means there’s a risk of repeating those mistakes – this time affecting equality at the ballot box.

A 2015  Electoral Commission report pointed out that 3.5 million citizens in the UK do not have access to photo ID, and 11 million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence – the kind of ID expected to be required under any new legislation.

The up-to-date figures, from 2017, show a gaping demographic divide remains in those statistics.

Excluding BAME voters

Looking at who has a full driving license in England paints a concerning picture – with black and mixed communities far less likely to possess one: white people are most likely to hold a driving licence out of all ethnic groups (at 76 per cent), followed by Asian people (62 per cent), while people identifying as mixed race (59 per cent) or Black (52 per cent) are the least likely to hold a driving licence.

While ministers have promised a free identification card from local councils on request, this simply represents another barrier to voting that will put many off – with large variations likely in terms of how easy the cards are to acquire.

Some forms of free ID were made available in trials testing this policy in May but figures show that almost no one got one. That was unsurprising given that, in many cases, a would-be voter had to turn up to a council office, fill in forms and get someone of “high standing” in your area to sign it.

Those same trials of compulsory voter ID trials, which took place in local elections in 10 councils, saw more than 700 people denied a vote for not having ID in pilots according to official figures. We could see voters excluded on an industrial scale if mandatory photo ID were rolled out nationally.

Heavy handed

Given there were just eight allegations of this kind of voter fraud in the whole of 2018, these proposals seem heavy handed and completely out of proportion. But perhaps the most galling thing about this policy is that there are genuine threats to our democracy in the UK that remain unaddressed. They’re just not from people wearing fancy dress to impersonate others at the ballot box.

A new briefing from the Electoral Reform Society, published today, points to over a dozen ‘major loopholes’ that make elections vulnerable to “dodgy donors, dark ads and disinformation”.

Let’s look at a few. At present, big donors can funnel their money through the use of unaccountable corporate trusts, potentially masking many separate donations through a single entity. And the lack of real-time donation reporting during elections means that voters often only find out about potential conflicts of interests or influences driving the debate long after the voting.

Worse still, foreign states, organisations or individuals are able to influence UK campaigns with online ads with little oversight. Millions can also be pumped into campaign groups, including from foreign donors – outside of the regulated campaign period, without funding transparency. Parliament has received reams of evidence of this happening – which is why major bodies like the Digital Culture Media and Sport committee is calling for action.

Out of date laws

As we have seen, Electoral Commission fines (max of £20,000) for electoral wrongdoing can be seen as the “cost of doing business” for big players, while the EC lack the investigatory powers of the Information Commissioner’s office.

Current laws regulating digital campaigning are now nearly 20 years old. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act came into law in 2000 – when just 13 per cent of people had access to the internet. Now millions are spent at elections on online campaigning, while the internet has also opened up greater potential for making untraceable foreign donations.

Many are joining our call for emergency legislation to bring the outdated regulations up to date to ensure any snap election isn’t vulnerable to foreign interference, including Conservative MP Damian Collins.

It is disappointing that this Queen’s Speech missed the opportunity to pledge real action on the glaring loopholes in our electoral law – instead of going after ordinary voters through their misguided mandatory voter ID plans.

Instead, black and minority ethnic communities – as well as many young and elderly voters – are likely to be hard hit by this ‘show your papers’ policy.

It is time to go after the big players, not millions of ordinary voters. The voter ID plans are set to leave tens of thousands of legitimate voters voiceless and will hit some groups much harder than others. Ministers should focus on combating the real threats to our democracy, rather than suppressing voters’ rights.

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