The Government must rethink its voter ID plans — or risk silencing the voices of marginalised people
‘ The groups most likely not to vote because of the introduction of voter ID are also among the least likely to vote for the current Government.?’
The introduction of ID requirements has the potential to prevent hundreds of thousands of people casting their vote
The way we cast our votes has not altered in centuries. That may be about to change. Last week week, the Court of Appeal gave the green light to the Government’s plans to require people to produce ID papers before they can vote.
But campaigners fear the changes, which would transform centuries of democratic practice in this country, risk suppressing the votes of the most marginalised. It is no accident that groups from Operation Black Vote to Mencap have denounced the introduction of Voter ID.
Why is the Government bringing these changes? It says it is to combat voter fraud. However, there is no evidence that impersonation at polling stations is a significant problem. The Electoral Commission which is responsible for monitoring our elections agrees.
In 2017, of 44 million votes cast, there were 28 allegations of impersonation, resulting in a single conviction. 2019, a year with of a high turnout general election, saw just one conviction for personation. As the Electoral Reform Society have put it, this is a solution without a problem. If we want to know the real reason why the Government is so keen to introduce voter ID we may need to look elsewhere.
Compare the numbers of instances of voter impersonation with the numbers that have been denied their right to vote by voter ID trials.
When the Government ran pilots to test voter ID requirements in a handful of local councils in 2018 and 2019, the Electoral Commission reported that thousands of voters were turned away from polling stations. Some returned with the correct ID but others, well over a 1000, did not.
These citizens were effectively disenfranchised for simply not possessing the right ID. Of course, the pilots could only measure those who turned up and were turned away. They couldn’t count the numbers that would be put off from trying to vote altogether by voter ID requirements in the first place.
An Electoral Commission survey estimated 2% of people in the pilot areas said they didn’t vote because they didn’t have the right ID. In a close election that’s easily enough to alter the outcome. And when you extrapolate the numbers denied a vote across the whole electorate its clear the introduction of ID requirements has the potential to prevent hundreds of thousands of people casting their vote.
It’s not just the numbers disenfranchised that should be of concern. It is who they are. Any individual denied their vote is worrying but as the pilots demonstrate marginalised groups of BAME, disabled and young voters – are by far the most likely to be disenfranchised by the changes.
In Watford, one of the only pilot areas which doesn’t have a Tory Council and one of the only tested areas with a significant BAME population, the Electoral Commission found a direct correlation between the size of the area’s Asian population and the number of people turned away.
The very groups – BAME, people with disabilities, young people – who lack a voice are most likely to be prevented from voting
There are likely also to be problems for those with disabilities. 3.5 million citizens do not have photo ID. If the voter ID requirements were restricted to passports or drivers licences 11 million citizens could potentially be disenfranchised.
As Mencap, a leading charity supporting people with learning disabilities, points out those with learning disability often don’t have ID such as a passport, drivers licence or even utility bills. Under these plans, they won’t be able to vote.
If the ID measures were rolled out across the UK in a national poll, the impact on marginalised voters could be huge.
It means the very groups – BAME, people with disabilities, young people - who lack a voice in a system and would benefit most from politicians paying attention to their views are most likely to be prevented from voting. The Windrush scandal highlighted the difficulties that legitimate voters may have in accessing identity documents through no fault of their own.
All of this should have set alarm bells ringing for the Government. Instead it is ploughing on with its plans.
And the worry is that it may be doing it not only despite, but because of, the disproportionate disenfranchisement of certain groups. The groups most likely not to vote because of the introduction of voter ID are also among the least likely to vote for the current Government.
In the UK we have avoided much of the gerrymandering and other partisan efforts to manipulate democracy
Voter suppression of this sort is not only wrong in principle. It has consequences. The Government should heed the lessons of the toxic battles over voter ID laws in the US.
Systemic discrimination in US voting system has a long and painful history. In recent years 32 states have introduced voter ID requirements despite very low levels of impersonation. As in the UK, disadvantaged groups are most significantly impacted, resulting in voter suppression amongst racial and ethnic minorities, more likely to vote Democrat. This has fuelled litigation.
Just last month, the Supreme Court of Kansas struck down voter ID laws. The court found the small potential fraud didn’t justify denying the vote to over 30,000 voters who could not meet the proof of citizenship requirement. The Kansas ID law was championed by Kris Kobach a Trump-supporter. He claimed that “millions” of immigrants living in the US were responsible for Trump losing the popular vote even as he won the Presidency in 2016.
In the UK we have avoided much of the gerrymandering and other partisan efforts to manipulate democracy. Electoral boundaries are decided by the independent Boundary Commission, and then accepted by cross-party consensus through a vote in the House of Commons. We should not abandon that now.
These measures will suppress voters, especially the most marginalised, in the name of tackling a non-existent problem. As a democratic society people are given a say in who governs them at the ballot box. Voter ID is hostile to that aim.
Cat Smith MP is the Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood and Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement
Sarah Sackman is a barrister and former Labour PPC