The government’s voter ID scheme is a dangerous step towards electoral suppression in the UK – just look at America

To defend our democracy, it’s crucial we call out the pilot scheme for what it is – a deliberate ploy to disenfranchise already marginalised groups

Abi Wilkinson
Wednesday 15 May 2019 19:09
Voter ID plan is 'ineffective' and could disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters, report finds

Though the Conservative government would like to convince us otherwise, there’s simply no evidence that voting fraud is even slightly an issue the UK. Electoral Commission data suggests that in 2017 there were 28 cases of voter fraud at polling stations. Even if these identified cases of represent only, say, a quarter of the true number of incidents, the total number would still be insufficient to swing a single constituency. Spread out across the entire country, they’d equal roughly one fraudulent vote per every six MPs.

Knowing this, it’s hard not to feel furious at preliminary reports on a second trial of compulsory voter ID during the recent local elections. In the eight test areas that have so far given figures, a total of 819 people were turned away from polling stations and didn’t return. That’s an average of around 80 people per test area denied a democratic voice. A small number in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but a worrying indication of the direction we could be heading in.

Data suggests that roughly 3.5 million people in the UK lack any form of photo ID, equivalent to 7.5 per cent of the electorate. Many such individuals may choose to vote in general elections and referendums, where turnout is often higher, but not in local elections – meaning that trial figures may understate the likely effect. Overwhelmingly, they’re likely to be from economically disadvantaged and Bame backgrounds.

In some cases, advocates of voter ID have explicitly suggested that ethnic minority voters are the problem. A 2014 report by the Electoral Commission – which suggested, with little concrete evidence, that voter fraud is a “serious issue” in the UK – fuelled unfounded perceptions that the issue is widespread in South Asian communities. It describes the basis for targeting “communities with a diverse range of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds” on allegations that they thought arose “more frequently from or about” the aforementioned groups.

The same thing happened after the Tower Hamlets election fraud scandal. The Eric Pickles’ report came out suggesting that “politically correct sensibilities” were stopping us from tackling voter fraud, again, based on hearsay and largely weak data.

Far from being an accidental bug, this discriminatory effect appears to be the entire point of the scheme. After all, most ethnic minority groups are statistically more likely to vote Labour than Conservative. Low-income people are also disproportionately Labour voters. The suggestion that our government is attempting to subvert democracy and rig the electoral system might seem shocking, but what other explanation is there? What possible alternative reason to press on with a scheme to disenfranchise 7.5 million people, conceived as a solution to a problem that doesn’t even exist?

It seems the Tories have been taking tips from over the Atlantic, where similar ploys have long been part of the electoral landscape. In the US, restrictive voter ID laws form part of a whole arsenal of voter suppression tactics which predominantly disenfranchise working-class, African American, Latino and other minority voters – all of whom are statistically more likely to vote Democrat than Republican.

Republican-controlled state legislatures do everything they can to prevent voters ousting them, to the point that independent researchers no longer even class certain states, such as North Carolina, as proper democracies. Since 2014, 13 states have passed more restrictive voter ID laws, and 11 have passed legislation making it harder to register to vote.

In Georgia, approximately 700,000 people were dropped from electoral rolls in 2017 without being informed. The next year, 53,000 were prevented from registering to vote for reasons as trivial as a misplaced hyphen. 70 per cent were African American. The individual responsible for overseeing this process was then-secretary of state Brian Kemp, who also happened to be the 2018 Republican gubernatorial candidate, and who beat African American Democrat Stacy Abrams by fewer than 55,000 votes.

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Polling places across the country have also been closed, a disproportionate number of which are located in working-class and ethnic minority communities. In seven states, the time window for voting has also been narrowed, a move that particularly inconveniences low-income and minority voters, who’re less likely to have flexibility over working hours.

In comparison with the raft of anti-democratic measures that have been implemented stateside, the UK Conservatives’ own voter ID wheeze might seem relatively trivial, but it’s important we recognise the intent.

A government that sets out to disenfranchise certain parts of the population, in order to gain electoral advantage, is a government that has fundamentally abandoned its commitment to democracy. The case study of the US shows that once a party is prepared to take these sorts of steps, things can deteriorate fast.

To defend our democracy, it’s crucial we call out compulsory voter ID plans for what they are – a deliberate ploy to disenfranchise already marginalised groups. If our government is allowed to get away with this, who knows what’s coming next.

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