Why voter ID checks are a threat to British democracy

To improve democracy, we should constantly seek to widen participation and engage people, not find an excuse to prevent them from voting

Owen Winter
Thursday 03 May 2018 19:16 BST
‘It’s shocking’: People denied vote in the UK for first time ever over lack of ID

Today, for the first time since universal suffrage was introduced, British voters were denied the right to vote despite being on the electoral register. Five councils are trialling the voter ID scheme, requiring voters to bring proof of identity to with them to the polling station. But whilst they claim that the scheme is defending democracy, the government are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and, in the process, further disenfranchising those who are already least likely to participate in elections. What’s more, their obstinate approach to the policy suggests they have more sinister motivations.

Whilst we can all agree that electoral integrity is important, there is no evidence that widespread voter impersonation is taking place. None of the five trial boroughs, for example, have reported a single case of voter impersonation taking place in the last decade. In the 2017 general election, only one conviction for it was made out of nearly 45 million votes cast. To improve democracy, we should constantly seek to widen participation and engage people. Any barrier to voting, therefore, should be backed up by substantial evidence of voter fraud. In this case, no such evidence exists.

Even if voter impersonation was happening, it is almost impossible that it could affect election results on a large scale. Because of the way elections operate in the UK, it is only possible to “steal” one vote through impersonation. To meaningfully influence an election by impersonation, it would take thousands of fraudsters and a near impossible level of organisation. It is simply too impractical to change an election result through voter impersonation. As it stands, the voter ID scheme would disenfranchise more people than the number who have ever had their vote “stolen”.

The real problem with the voter ID proposal is that it poses a bigger threat to democracy than the fraud it seeks to prevent. According to government figures, around 10 per cent of us don’t have a passport or a driving license. Under the proposed system, these people could be denied a vote. Universal participation in elections is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy, it should not be conditional on whether you have ID.

The government has argued that you need an ID to pick up a parcel, so why shouldn’t we need an ID to vote? The difference is that requiring an ID to vote could prevent millions of people from taking part in our democracy. And unlike picking up a parcel, if you forget your ID to vote you can’t come back the next day. Exercising your democratic right should not be treated like a simple transaction, it is an integral part of citizenship which politicians should encourage, not restrict.

Although most people in the UK do have some form of ID, there are certain groups that would be disproportionately affected by voter ID requirements. They are also the groups that are already the least likely to vote – young people, the unemployed, ethnic minorities and people in poverty. This is a particularly worrying aspect of the plan that could worsen the already woeful representativeness of our democratic institutions. In the wake of the Windrush scandal, we should be all too mindful of those people who, through no fault of their own, do not have important pieces of documentation.

Fine – you might think – this is just a trial. But the government has already been warned of the disastrous effects of voter ID. Charities and democracy groups have already pointed out that the proposals could damage participation and disproportionately affect certain groups – so why are they plowing ahead regardless?

The answer may lie in the groups that are likely to be excluded, those who tend to be poorer, younger and more diverse. They are all groups who also tend to vote Labour. Whilst I hope that the Government would never try to subvert democracy so blatantly, it is deeply unsettling that Conservative voters are likely to be the least affected by the measures.

As chaos unfolds in the areas that have trialled voter ID requirements today, I hope the government sees sense and abandon their plans. The ability to turn up to a polling station, give your name, and have a say in how the country is run is one of the best aspects of our political system. It would be a grave mistake to threaten this for the sake of a problem that doesn’t exist.

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