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This ID scheme is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut - and risks disenfranchising voters

This ID scheme is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut - and risks disenfranchising voters
4 min read

We should constently seek to widen participation in our elections - but rolling out this voter ID scheme would create a significant barrier to voting for the elderly, ethnic minorities and the less well-off, warns Ellie Reeves

At the beginning of May, swathes of the country went to the ballot box for the local elections. Five boroughs, including Bromley which part of my constituency covers, were selected to pilot the government’s Voter ID scheme. This scheme requires voters to present identification before casting their ballot and is part of a programme to prevent ‘personation’ at polling stations.

The government is keen to roll this scheme out nationally, however, I believe the requirement to bring ID to the polling station will prevent some people from being able to vote, deter others from doing so while attempting to solve an almost non-existent issue. These are concerns which have further been expressed by the Electoral Reform Society, who call the measures deeply flawed and may potentially indicate an attempt by the government to deter some citizens from voting.

The problem is that the issue this scheme intends to resolve is very small. Data from the Electoral Reform Society shows that in 2015 there were just 26 allegations of fraud based on impersonation, amounting to 0.000051% of overall votes cast. Further, in 2017 there were just 28 allegations with one prosecution amounting to 0.000063% of overall votes cast.

According to data released by the councils in the trial areas, 340 voters were denied their democratic right to vote in the 2018 elections. This is a figure 12 times greater than the national number of voter fraud allegations in 2017. If this figure was scaled nationally it would represent a significant percentage of the population.

I find this extremely concerning as this is the first-time citizens have been denied their right to vote since universal suffrage was introduced. Ensuring integrity of the electoral system is extremely important but these figures suggest the proposals amount to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

In addition, the introduction of the scheme would make no difference to allegations of fraud with postal votes, proxy votes, breaches of secrecy, tampering with ballot papers, bribery, undue influence, or electoral expenditure. Therefore, Voter ID would do little to prevent determined fraudsters from acting.

However, the introduction of the scheme would create a significant barrier to voting for the elderly, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and those who are less well-off and least likely to hold forms of photo ID. Interestingly, none of the trial boroughs had a significantly poorer or ethnically diverse population than the national average.

If the scheme were to be rolled out nationally, I would expect that a far greater percentage of the electorate would be disenfranchised. This is particularly salient considering the recent Windrush scandal, due to documentation issues, those affected by it may face the further indignity of not being able to cast their vote.

Evidence from the USA (which has strict voter ID rules) has shown that the scheme disproportionately affects marginalised groups because those who can’t afford to drive or go on holiday don’t spend to get the required ID. In the 2011 UK Census, 9.5 million people stated they did not hold a passport and 9 million do not have a driving licence. To remedy this non-photographic ID such as utility Bills could be used, however many people do not have utility bills in their name, such as those living in shared or temporary accommodation.

Furthermore, it is also virtually impossible for voter impersonation to affect an election result on any large scale. It is only possible to ‘steal’ one vote through impersonation. Therefore, to effectively influence an election would require a professional campaign that coordinated thousands of fraudsters. The nature of such a campaign would make it easily identifiable. The financial cost to roll out the system would far outweigh the current cost of mitigating fraud.

To improve our democracy, we should constantly seek to widen participation and voter engagement.

These proposals, rolled out on a wider scale would do the opposite, disenfranchising many and having a much bigger impact on election results than current personation fraud does.   

Ellie Reeves is Labour MP for Lewisham West and Penge. Her Westminster Hall debate takes place on Wednesday 6 June



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