The government’s voter ID plans risk disenfranchising millions of voters for the sake of a non-existent problem
Arguments in favour of voter ID contain more holes than a leaky sponge, writes Cat Smith MP. | PA Images
The government's voter ID plans will disproportionately suppress Black, Asian and minority ethnic voters, yet there is little evidence to suggest that impersonation at polling stations is a widespread problem in Britain.
This week, the government re-stated its firm commitment to the introduction of Voter ID, a policy which mandates the possession of photographic ID at polling stations from the next General Election.
For many of us, carrying ID is a part of life; you might take your driving licence everywhere. But many millions can’t afford the privilege of carrying photo ID. Three and a half million people - 7.5% of the electorate - do not have access to any form of photo ID. In this one fell swoop, the government risks disenfranchising millions of voters.
And it’s not just the number of disenfranchised voters which is a cause for concern, but who these voters are.
We know that Black, Asian and minority ethnic voters are set to be disproportionately affected by this policy. Worryingly, Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are the group most likely to feel excluded from our democracy, least likely to be registered, and least likely to vote. The Electoral Commission recently found that 44% of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups perceive barriers to democratic participation.
The government should be doing everything it can to get more people to vote, not putting up barriers
This policy will suppress voters. Yet Ministers continue to roll out the same recycled arguments, arguments which don’t hold up to scrutiny. The government’s two main justifications can be easily debunked:
Defence 1: Voter ID is needed to solve the issue of Voter Fraud in the UK
The government’s main justification for Voter ID turns on the argument that it will tackle voter fraud. However, there is little evidence to suggest that impersonation at polling station is a widespread problem in Britain. In 2017, of 44 million votes cast, there were 28 allegations of impersonation, resulting in a single conviction. 2019, a year with a high turnout general election, saw just one conviction for impersonation. The likelihood of being struck by lightning twice, is higher.
As the anti-racism group Hope Not Hate, summed up: mandatory voter ID is “a cure that is worse than the sickness”. Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We saw with the Windrush scandal how some communities struggle to provide official documentation, with the severe consequences.
Defence 2: In voter ID pilots there was no indication that any consistent demographic was adversely affected by asking for identification to vote.
Government Ministers repeat this same line, time and time again. Yet, Labour recently revealed that the government’s pilots did not collect any data about the numbers of Black, Asian and minority ethnic voters able to vote, and they were carried out in areas with very low diversity. Moreover, Labour found that the government does not hold any data on possession of ID by ethnicity, throwing in to doubt ministers’ claims.
The government seem determined to introduce this policy, in the name of tackling a non-existent problem.
When it comes to extending our electoral franchise, the government should be doing everything it can to get more people to vote, not putting up barriers.
Ministers have failed to justify why their plans are needed or how they will engage disenfranchised communities. The simple truth is that instead of holding water their arguments in favour of Voter ID contain more holes than a leaky sponge.
Cat Smith is the Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood and shadow minister for young people and voter engagement.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.