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Sat, 11 July 2020

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The Government’s voter ID proposal is an exercise in selective disenfranchisement

The Government’s voter ID proposal is an exercise in selective disenfranchisement
4 min read

A voter ID scheme would lock millions out of the democratic process in a completely disproportionate response to voter personation, writes Tom Brake MP

Since stumbling through six successive defeats in the Commons, Boris Johnson’s government has done everything it can to present itself as the voice of the people against an overbearing parliament. It bluffs its way through any intricacies or manifest problems with its approach, with a stubborn insistence that, if it weren’t for all these problematic politicians, then everything would really be quite easy. 

Their proposed voter ID scheme, however, is the epitome of overbearing government, limiting democratic participation as part of a solution in search of a problem. In 2017, the Electoral Commission found just one conviction for voter personation. In 2018, there were just eight allegations of personation fraud. 

This is the offence photo ID would seek to prevent, and the vanishingly small problem the Government has decided requires a sledgehammer to crack. 
The most common forms of voter ID are passports and driving licences, but these are by no means ubiquitous. Indeed, 11 million UK citizens do not have a passport or driving licence and 3.5 million lack any access to photo ID; approximately 7.5% of the electorate. Unsurprisingly, those most affected by the proposed policy will be women, ethnic minorities, and the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Women are less likely than men to have a driving licence, and black people are considerably less likely than white people. Certain ethnic minorities, meanwhile, are substantially less likely to have a passport. 

The pilot scheme, conducted during the 2019 local elections, resulted in nearly 2,000 people being turned away, 740 of whom then failed to return with ID to cast their ballot. While relatively small in absolute terms, the scale of disenfranchisement is many orders of magnitude larger than the miniscule number of voter personation cases.

While the Government claims that this issue will be avoided through the use of free ID schemes, coverage is unlikely to be comprehensive. Any rollout would require an all-encompassing information and awareness campaign. We have already seen the failures of government application schemes writ large in the ongoing issues surrounding EU Settled Status, and I very much doubt that the outcome will be any better in this instance. No scheme, however well-funded, will reach 100% coverage, and if people are turned away on the day of voting, they will be locked out of the democratic process. 

Ultimately, the pilot scheme was deemed a waste of time and the public’s money. Local councils have already stepped back from the scheme, and it’s no surprise. The rollout of voter ID could cost up to £20m per election, and lumping local councils with enforcement and issuance is a further burden on already stretched budgets. For those who move frequently, meanwhile, this could be a barrier thrown up at every election.

Ministers have talked up the importance of safeguarding democratic principles, and downplayed the manifold negative side-effects of the scheme, but the question remains - are those in fact side-effects? The problem is so infinitesimal, the impact on certain voters so disproportionate, that selective disenfranchisement appears to be the chief outcome of this policy, rather than an unwelcome aside. 

It should not be the business of government to disenfranchise its citizens. Instead, we should be focusing on ways to encourage and increase democratic participation. To this end, the Liberal Democrats are committed to allowing 16-year-olds a vote in any future elections or referenda, to provide them a say in their futures. Currently, the only recent election they were eligible to vote for was the Conservative leadership campaign. 

I would ask the winner of that campaign to cast his mind back to the last time ID cards were mooted. In 2004, a rambunctious writer for the Telegraph called Boris Johnson proudly proclaimed that should he be asked to produce an ID card, he would eat it. This scheme would be one of his more costly and unappetising gastronomic adventures. 

Tom Brake is Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington


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