Civil Liberty Groups Come Out In Force Against “Unnecessary and Expensive” Voter ID Plans
Trials of mandatory voter ID have been run across the UK in recent years (Alamy)
Plans announced in the Queen’s Speech to require voters to produce photo identification at polling stations has been criticised as “an unnecessary and expensive distraction” by multiple charities and research groups.
The government insists the new legislation will help “strengthen and renew democracy” by ensuring the “integrity of elections”.
But critics argue the proposals could disenfranchise huge swathes of the electorate and reduce turnouts as people are discouraged from heading to polling stations.
There are also concerns about how effectively the system can be enforced and whether councils will get additional funding to distribute ID cards, which the government insists will be freely available for all citizens.
Many of these organisations also came out against the idea in 2018, when over 40 leading charities and academics wrote to the government urging them to reconsider their plans to run pilot mandatory voter ID during local elections.
"This policy is misguided and wrong, and risks pulling up the drawbridge to people across the country,” said Dr Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).
“At a cost of up to £20 million per election, this is a colossal waste of energy and resources at a time when we should be focusing on the UK’s recovery.”
According to a 2015 report from the Electoral Commission, around 3.5 million people do not have any form of photo ID, while 11 million — around a quarter of the electorate — do not have a passport or driving licence.
There were only six recorded cases of voter fraud at the 2019 election out of 47.5 million votes cast, and recent trials of mandatory voter ID in some areas saw around 800 people turned away from polling stations.
Dr Garland argues these statistics show that requiring ID could put up “a barrier to many people exercising their right to vote.”
“We need to be combating the huge challenges that undermine our democracy, not putting up paywalls around polling stations,” she continued.
Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at civil liberties charity Liberty, warned that the most marginalised groups were the most likely to be affected.
“Millions of people in the UK don’t have photo ID, and the vast majority of them come from communities that are already marginalised and under-represented by our political system,” he said.
“Meanwhile the Government’s own findings show our current voting system is safe and secure.
“Instead of creating more barriers to voting, ministers should focus on making it easier for everyone to vote, and ensuring we can all have an equal say in our democratic process.”
Those whose gender identity or appearance may not match their official ID could also face difficulties voting under the proposed system, according to LGBT+ charity Stonewall.
“We’re struggling to see why the Government has chosen to press ahead with plans to introduce voter ID,” said Eloise Stonborough, the charity’s associate director of policy and research.“Requiring people to show ID to vote is unfair and adds a huge barrier to many people’s ability to vote, especially those who already face inequalities, including LGBT+ communities.
“This will particularly impact LGBT+ people of colour, those of us who are working-class, homeless and/or disabled as well as trans, non-binary and gender diverse people who may not have ID which matches their gender or how they look.”
“Among the very real challenges facing our society surrounding the COVID-19 crisis, voter ID seems an unnecessary and expensive distraction. The right to vote is a cornerstone of our values and protecting everyone’s right to vote is fundamental to democracy.”
But, responding to concerns, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson insisted that requiring voters to show ID would not present a barrier to the electorate.
“Showing identification to vote is a reasonable approach to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud in our current system and we are committed to introducing an identification requirement for all voters at polling stations,” they said. The spokesperson added that the public “expect the government to take action on that and to make sure that potential is shut down.”
They insisted the proposed legislation would “bring us into line with not only Northern Ireland but countries such as Canada, many European countries, including France and Netherlands, Sweden”.
The new Bill builds on recommendations made in a 2016 report by Sir Eric Pickles, which warned that the lack of evidence for voter fraud “does not mean this practice is not taking place”.
It argued that the current voting system is “unsatisfactory” as it allows for the “potential for significant abuse if people can commit personation at polling stations with little risk of detection.”
“It is harder to take out a municipal library book than it is to vote in a polling station administered by the same council,” it claimed.