Ministers accused of ‘failing in duties’ to make public aware of voter ID rules

Labour branded the plans ‘expensive’ and ‘unnecessary’ while the Electoral Reform Society warned they could hinder young voters.

Ian Jones
Tuesday 04 April 2023 15:30 BST
More than 8,000 council seats are up for grabs on May 4 across 230 local authorities (PA)
More than 8,000 council seats are up for grabs on May 4 across 230 local authorities (PA)

Ministers have been accused of “failing in their duties” to make the public aware of voter ID rules ahead of local elections, with critics warning the change may hinder young people from casting a ballot.

The new policy means people must not only be registered to vote but also take a form of photo identification when they head to their local polling station on May 4.

A passport or driving licence are valid but some types of photo ID, including some travelcards for young people, will not be accepted.

Anyone without the correct identification needs to apply for a Voter Authority Certificate by April 25.

Campaign groups the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy have warned as many as two million people in Britain do not currently have the right form of ID.

An average of 922 applications per day for a certificate were made online in England in the week to April 2, up from 803 the previous week, according to PA news agency analysis of Government data.

A total of 36,089 applications have been submitted online in England since February 1.

The Electoral Reform Society voiced renewed concerns on Tuesday that the plans could make it harder for young people to vote because forms of photo ID such as 16-25 railcards are not considered valid.

Willie Sullivan, senior director at the Electoral Reform Society, told PA: “Allowing bus passes and Oyster cards for older voters but refusing to accept the same forms of ID for young people means that these new rules could disproportionately shut out younger voters from the ballot box.

“If the Government wants to improve our elections it should be finding ways to encourage voter engagement – especially amongst young people who typically turn out less at election time. Instead, these new laws will do just the opposite.”

Labour are clear that voter ID is an expensive, unnecessary policy and the wrong priority at the height of a cost-of-living crisis

Angela Rayner, Labour's deputy leader

Labour accused the Government of failing to make voters aware of the new policy as the application deadline for the special certificates approaches.

Deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “The Government has a crucial responsibility to make voters aware of their voter ID policies, but they are clearly failing in their duties.

“Labour are clear that voter ID is an expensive, unnecessary policy and the wrong priority at the height of a cost-of-living crisis.

“If voters don’t have the required photo ID, the easiest way to vote is by signing up for a postal vote.”

The Government has argued the policy was introduced to prevent voter impersonation.

There is no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud over the past five years, according to the Electoral Commission.

Between 2018 and 2022, there were nine convictions relating to electoral fraud and six police cautions issued, its figures show.

Downing Street acknowledged on Monday that the rules were aimed at preventing “potential” wrongdoing, rather than dealing with any widespread existing issue.

It insisted that only a “very small proportion” of young voters lack the necessary ID to cast their ballot.

“This is to guard against the potential for wrongdoing in this area or voter impersonation,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said.

“There’s a raft of ID that’s available, of course people can apply for the ID that’s being provided on top of that.

“The facts are that 99% of people aged 18 to 29 have acceptable ID and we are actively supporting the very small proportion who do not.”

In February, local government minister Lee Rowley said that around 98% of the electorate already have an accepted form of voter ID, such as a passport, driving licence or blue badge.

But opposition MPs including Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan and shadow communities minister Alex Norris warned that the pace of the rollout of Voter Authority Certificates for those without could lead to widespread disenfranchisement.

The voter ID requirement is already in place in Northern Ireland and, from October, the condition will be extended to UK general elections as well.

This year photo ID presents a new barrier for young people and students to get their voices heard

Bernie Savage, of the NUS

It comes as the National Union of Students, British Youth Council and Generation Rent launched a joint campaign on Tuesday to encourage young people to sign up to vote in time for the local elections, citing “new barriers in place”.

The drive will include registering students “en masse” through university and college enrolment and making sure they have a valid photo ID, they said.

Bernie Savage, NUS vice-president for further education, said: “When politicians make decisions, they look at who is on the electoral register and who votes.

“This year photo ID presents a new barrier for young people and students to get their voices heard, but if they want to affect real change, then it’s vital they get involved, make sure they have valid ID, get themselves on the electoral register and turn up and vote”.

More than 8,000 council seats are up for grabs on May 4 across 230 local authorities, ranging from small rural councils to some of the largest towns and cities – though no elections are scheduled in London or Birmingham.

Polls are also taking place to choose mayors in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough.

No elections are taking place in Scotland and Wales this year.

Local elections in Northern Ireland have been put back two weeks to May 18, to avoid a clash with the King’s coronation on May 6.

The Local Government Association (LGA) described the policy as “the biggest change to in-person voting in 150 years” and said councils would be working “around the clock” in the run-up to May 4.

A spokesperson said: “Councils are working around the clock to deliver the local elections and the new voter ID requirements, which is the biggest change to in-person voting in 150 years. The practical effort required to deliver this change in such a short timeframe should not be understated.

“Raising public awareness of these new requirements is crucial and we remain concerned about the potential for electoral staff to be overwhelmed with inquiries and Voter Authority Certificate applications when polling cards go out.

“Electoral administrators and returning officers also need urgent clarity and detailed guidance to implement any changes to the electoral process without risking access to the vote.”

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