Welsh youth will be the collateral of Westminster’s voter ID laws

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 10th August 2021

This is a guest post by Maddy Dhesi, an 18 years old ERS member living in North Wales. 

The Queen’s Speech on the 17th May outlined the UK Government’s plans to implement Voter ID in UK elections. In Wales, the proposed bill would make it mandatory for Welsh people voting in the UK General Election and Police and Crime Commissioner elections to provide photo ID in order to vote. 

For those with ID, requiring it for voting could feel like merely an issue of  remembering to bring your ID along to the polling station on election day. But what if you can’t afford a photo ID?

Under the 18 year-old national minimum wage, it would cost a young voter just under a full day of work to be able to afford a Provisional license application and over 12 hours of work in order to finance a new passport (which can cost up to £85). As well as being costly, passports can take up to ten weeks to be delivered. Though provisional driving licence applications are said to be processed and sent within a week, the initial online form is followed by a few days’ wait for a paper form, which is followed by a trip to the supermarket and an additional £6 cost for ID pictures. This process also takes longer when the licences are in demand. Furthermore, these ID photographs then need to be verified by a Civil Servant

This is accessible for some young people still in school but there are no restrictions on verifiers charging for the service and some people may find it difficult to find somebody to verify their picture. The GOV.UK website even suggests asking your local Member of Parliament or Senedd Member to verify your identity. Personally, I would much rather be asking my local MP to oppose the voter ID restrictions than to verify my identity in order to grant me access to vote.

The UK Government suggest they are proposing these rules in order to curb the threat of fraud in elections. However, even Minister Matt Hancock admitted there were only six cases of ballot fraud in the 2019 election. The scheme is forecasted to increase the cost of General Elections by up to £20,000,000 – a heavy price with high consequences for such a low threat.

Northern Ireland brought in  voter ID due to high levels of documented voter fraud in 1987 and also allows a free Electoral Identity Card for those who cannot afford Photo ID. The application process – whilst it requires either the cost of travelling in person to obtain a free card or the cost of taking a passport appropriate photo – is relatively simple and affordable in comparison to passport and driving licence IDs. However, it is estimated that over 3.5 million people in the UK do not have photo ID, twice Northern Ireland’s whole population, and implementing a scheme to provide something similar to Northern Ireland’s electoral card would carry great costs when there is no evidence of a major problem with fraud. . 

The pilot scheme for Voter ID in 2019 reported over 1000 voters being refused a vote and not returning to vote again. With access to photo ID carrying a racial disparity – whilst over three quarters of White people are reported to have at least one type of photo ID, only 48% of Black people and 31% of Asian people can say the same. Rejected voters are therefore more likely to be people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, creating an electoral system that is more of a reflection of the UK’s White population whilst excluding ethnic minority groups that are already barely represented in the House of Commons, with only 10% of the 650 MPs coming from an ethnic minority background. Wales only has three MSs in the Senedd and currently no  MPs in Parliament from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds . Voter ID laws will only worsen this underrepresentation.

Without a free and accessible electoral identity card scheme, that is as easy to apply for as it is to register to vote, everything that is required to obtain a photo ID is finicky and time consuming. Lengthening the process it takes to vote will ostracise the young voters that are needed for a representative democracy. In Wales our recent election turnouts have ranged from 66.6% in the 2019 General Election to 46.6% in the 2021 Senedd election. Undeniably, effort is needed to bring voters to the polls. Why disillusion voters by making the process costly and difficult?

The Senedd expanded the electorate to include 16 and 17 year olds in the May Senedd elections, which led to our highest turnout in twenty years. Positive changes are being enacted – especially with the Senedd looking to increase the number of seats from 60. Contrastingly, the UK Government’ proposed boundary changes remove 8 of Wales’ 40 seats in the House of Commons and expand England’s 533 seats to 543. This would leave Wales represented by under 5% of seats in a parliament that controls key aspects of Welsh life (ranging from policing to foreign affairs). 

Lack of minority representation, low electoral turnout, and Welsh underrepresentation means we should be widening access to our democracy. Gatekeeping it further should not be the future Welsh youth inherit. The pandemic has seen young people sacrifice a lot and the end of the pandemic brings a valuable opportunity to build on young people’s increased community participation and knowledge of politics – voter ID would curb the progress made and squander the opportunity to improve the democratic engagement with young people in politics.

This highly contentious bill carries bleak consequences for the future of Welsh democracy that Welsh young people such as myself will inherit.

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