Why voter ID is the opposite of what we need to improve our elections

Federico Scolari, Former Student Placement

Posted on the 12th March 2021

That there is growing opposition to government plans to introduce mandatory voter ID should come as no surprise.

Requirements to show photo ID at polling stations, which are expected to be introduced in 2023, are yet another example of the government missing the mark when it comes to policies designed to protect UK democracy.

The move is designed to reduce the risk of voter fraud and improve the integrity of the electoral process‘, but the evidence that such problem exists is minimal. Out of over 58 million votes cast in all elections in 2019, there was only one conviction for personation (the type of fraud voter ID is alleged to resolve) and one caution. Even allowing that one incidence of voter fraud is one too many, the threat to millions being denied and stolen their vote for lack of ID is far more concerning.

According to figures from the Electoral Commission in 2015, 3.5 million electors (7.5 percent of electorate) could be left with no way of voting. If ID forms were limited to passports and driving licences only, then as many as 11 million electors would not have acceptable ID – that’s a shocking 24 percent of the electorate.

Ethnic minorities are most likely to be affected by the policy: 47 percent of black people do not own a driving licence, compared to 24 percent of white people. With the pandemic having hit ethnic groups harder, there is even less need in advocating for a scarcely evidential problem, while further marginalising and polarising a social reality that needs cohesiveness and representation instead.

It would be insensible to claim that electoral fraud is insignificant. But other than being damaging, the need for the policy is imaginary – and extremely expensive.

Other than the obvious risks involved in potentially disenfranchising millions of voters, the policy serves as a costly distraction for both the government and voters.

According to the government’s own figures, the move may cost up to £20m per general election, and there’s no need to explain that funds ought to be directed towards some pressing issues – this figure could pay for 600 nurses each election.

And then there are the costs to the voter – for the ordinary adult citizen, a passport costs as much as £85, and a driving licence requires no less than £34. Those that do not travel or that cannot afford them will have neither, and will thus be denied access to the polling station – an unforgivably exclusionary practice.

The government have committed to introducing some form of free ID scheme but the details of this are scant and, with some councils already requiring photo ID for postal votes, little thought has been given to the administrative hurdles voters face in acquiring even free identification.

But this obsession with photo identification masks the real issues already built into our system around access to the ballot box.

As it stands, 25 percent of black voters are not registered to vote, along with 24 percent of Asian voters, compared to a 17 percent average across the population. It seems that the government has much more to do to address these missing millions than introducing new policies that could narrow the franchise even further.

Speaking at the APPG for Race Equality earlier this week, ERS’ Josiah Mortimer explained that ‘when millions of people lack photo ID, the policy would represent a wrecking ball to political equality. Imposing mandatory ID is totally the wrong priority right now. Make no mistake, ordinary people will be locked out of the ballot box’. He continued: ‘Ministers should be expanding voter rights, not taking a crowbar to the already-critical cracks in our democracy. We have a winner-takes-all voting system that too often makes people feel it’s not worth bothering voting at all. We need stronger, fairer elections. Mandatory ID will take us further away from that goal”.

Already, voter turnout in local elections stands at record lows – 35 percent in 2018  – public participation should be promoted rather than being undermined. Every other party opposes the introduction of photo ID and for good reason.

First Past the Post has already shown the ailments in representation, and the introduction of mandatory photo ID is a needless provocation that further hinders our democratic process, while penalising minorities and further widening the social divide.

We need to focus on what truly matters and ensure a fair electoral process for all.

Federico Scolari is a placement student with the Electoral Reform Society from the University of Nottingham.

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