The government's Voter ID law threatens thousands of voters – all to solve a problem that doesn't exist

With just eight allegations of ‘personation’ at the polling station last year, making people bring ID with them to vote is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut

Michela Palese
Monday 14 October 2019 13:37
Voter ID plan is 'ineffective' and could disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters, report finds

Picture the scenario: a city sees eight suspected burglaries take place over the course of a year. In response, the government declares that all residents must purchase new security gates – or they won’t be allowed into their own homes.

This would be heavy-handed, draconian, and unfair. After all, the government should go after the wrong-doers, not innocent residents.

Now look at the government’s newly-announced voter ID plans. After eight allegations of “personation” fraud (the crime of pretending to be someone else at the ballot box) in the whole of the UK in 2018, the government is going after millions of innocent voters. Under proposals announced in today’s Queen’s Speech, they will force us all to bring photo ID to the polling station – at a cost of up to £20m to the public purse per General Election.

In a country without universal, free or cheap access to ID, such a move is dangerous, misguided and undemocratic.

The policy will make it harder for millions of ordinary citizens to vote. A 2015 Electoral Commission report, for example, pointed out that 3.5 million citizens in the UK do not have access to photo ID, while 11 million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence.

The government claims that the introduction of voter ID will tackle fraud and corruption, in particular “personation”. But this is a completely disproportionate response to the extremely rare incidence of personation at the polling station.

Official figures show that of the 266 cases of electoral fraud investigated by police in 2018, personation fraud at the polling station accounted for just eight of the allegations made. No further action was taken for seven of these allegations, and one was locally resolved.

The government trialled voter ID in some local authorities during the 2018 and 2019 local elections. It was disturbing to see ministers describe it as a “success”: we know that hundreds of people were denied a vote for not having ID. In 2019, according to official figures, more than 700 people were turned away from polling stations across just 10 council areas.

Scale that up to a general election and we have a scandal in the making.

If mandatory ID laws are rolled out nationally, we could see voters excluded on an industrial scale – and people with protected characteristics as well as those less likely to vote would be the hardest hit.

Getting ID costs time and money that some may not be able to invest, and we know that certain groups – particularly marginalised or vulnerable groups – are less likely to have ID. The Windrush scandal showed just how difficult it can be for minority groups to provide documents proving their identity. It’s no wonder that groups including Operation Black Vote and the Runnymede Trust have cautioned against this so-called “show your papers” policy.

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Rather than spending millions on making it harder for people to vote, we should be investing in encouraging democratic participation and engagement. Ministers should focus on combating the real threats to our democracy, rather than making it harder for people to exercise their democratic right to vote.

As the Electoral Reform Society has long called for, there are actual, much more serious threats to electoral integrity that we should be addressing: anonymous “dark ads”, dodgy donations and disinformation, and our outdated electoral laws.

Instead of taking on the real issues, the government is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The plans represent a genuine threat to free and fair elections in the UK – and have already raised fears of US-style “gerrymandering”. Ministers should think again.

You can sign the ERS’ petition against the “show your papers” voter ID policy here

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