Boris Johnson should keep to his word, and choke off any attempts to introduce voter ID
A voter carries his passport along with his poll card, as he makes his way to vote in Woking, one of five councils which trialled the use of ID in polling stations in 2018 (Alamy)
“If I am ever asked, on the streets of London, or in any other venue, public or private, to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am… then I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded that I produce it.”
How times change. The Boris Johnson who wrote those words in 2004 has become the Prime Minister of 2021 who now demands that every one of us produces an ID card in order to exercise our right to vote. He intends to push through new rules to that effect ahead of the next UK-wide election. This, despite there being no evidence that voter ID rules are necessary to prevent fraud and despite there being a great deal of evidence to suggest that they will do serious harm to our voting rights.
We need the government to be straight with us. We deserve to hear the real reasons why they want to foist ID cards on us. We cannot believe the excuses that they have given us thus far – because they are entirely unbelievable. It is time for a parliamentary debate to get this in the open.
You can tell there is some weasel work going on in government when a spokesperson says that the measures are to prevent “the potential for voter fraud in our electoral system”. Not to prevent “actual” voter fraud but the “potential” for it.
After all, the number of people convicted for voter fraud in all the elections held in 2019?
Ladies and gentlemen, if all the people convicted for voter fraud in 2019 got together to form a Beatles tribute act, they would be short one Ringo. They would be two players away from having a five-a-side team.
All the people convicted of voter fraud in 2019 would not even be able to play a game of cribbage together. This is the great scourge that the government proposes to defeat.
In order to combat a phantom problem, the government is creating a very real one – by putting barriers in front of the three million people in this country who do not have photo ID. These are people who are disproportionately working class, elderly or from minority backgrounds, but such hurdles could affect any one of us – including you or me.
Don’t take my word for it. During a trial in 2019 the Electoral Commission estimated that two per cent of people didn’t vote specifically because they didn’t have the right ID. Applied across the whole country that could mean a million potential voters or more.
When the news of the government’s plans came out in February, a councillor from one of those 2019 trial areas told me about the experiences of a constituent:
“With three young kids she was already time poor and didn't want the extra hassle of organising childcare so she could spend two hours getting the bus into town to allow her to use her right to vote.”
This may be just one example but more will follow if the government gets its way. Many practical problems are surmountable in theory but in their millions they will represent a measurable weakening of democracy in our country. Even a seemingly small barrier to voting will discourage people – and we should not be trying to make people jump through hoops when voting rates are already far lower than they were in past decades.
Either you believe in making democracy work for everyone in this country or you do not. If ministers truly believed in strengthening the “integrity” of our voting then they would not be scrapping limits on government manipulation of elections like the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. If they truly believed in building confidence in a fair and free electoral system, then they would be working with all parties to put in place a proportional representation.
If this government really believed in building up our democracy then they would not be constructing entirely unnecessary barriers to voting.
But that is what this government is doing. We know they are not pushing for voter ID in order to protect the integrity of our elections. We have the right, therefore, to demand the real reason.
By now we are all accustomed to extravagant storytelling from our Prime Minister, followed inevitably by shameless betrayal. I, for one, would like to see Boris Johnson fulfil his 2004 promise – and choke down his ID card in front of the whole nation.
Alistair Carmichael is Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland and spokesperson for home affairs