Renewing my passport recently, I came up against an irritatingly inconvenient side effect. Every time I tried to buy a bottle of wine in a supermarket, the cashiers seemingly refused to believe there wasn’t an outside possibility I might be a 17-year-old and turned me away. Arguments that 17-year-olds generally don’t plan wild nights around cat litter, fresh pasta, hoover bags and mid-price wine didn’t wash: the relative maturity I believed my basket contents conveyed wasn’t a watertight (or legal) indicator of age. And while many people have a driving licence to prove they’ve reached the age where they can destroy their own liver, the fact that I have epilepsy means I can’t even get a provisional licence.
Now that Eric Pickles has announced a pilot to force voters to show identification when voting, this inconvenience could mean that rather than missing out on the ability to buy a bottle of pinot noir, people in my position could end up completely disenfranchised. Explaining to friends that a passport is my only form of ID when I am shown up in a bar, it’s usually assumed I’m in a small minority: but the 2011 census shows that 24 per cent of the UK born population hold no passport at all.
To vote under these proposals, you’d need to show a passport, driving licence or utility bill. Three million more people hold driving licences than passport, but 10 million UK nationals still lack this form of photo ID. It’s not a stretch to assume many people who lack driving licences also lack passports, and would struggle to provide the necessary paperwork for Pickles’s pilot. Most utility companies have offered financial incentives for customers who choose to receive bills online. I haven’t received a utility bill or bank statement since I was at university in 2009. The Government’s assumption that these three forms of ID are easy to come by ignores the experience of several million potential voters.
Electoral fraud is a problem, though it is not thought to be widespread. What is widespread is voter apathy: even in last year’s general election, which had the highest turnout since Labour’s 1997 landslide, only 66 per cent of registered voters cast their ballot. At a time when a third of the country didn’t vote for any candidates, we’re now seeing a concerted effort to add several layers of difficulty to participation in democracy. For evidence of how voting ID laws disenfranchise communities, you only need to look to the United States, where states who require photo ID to vote have much lower turnout of poor, black, Latino and older voters.
For certain parties this is politically expedient: they argue that the aim is to make voting secure, and that an unexpected side effect is lower turnout amongst those in poverty, migrants and people in precarious jobs and housing. Traditional Conservative voters will have little problem, but for working-class people who are more likely to vote for Labour this will mean a significant number who could previously vote will now find themselves struggling to gather the necessary paperwork. Passports are expensive: £72.50 at the very least, while provisional driving licences cost £34. If you’re solvent, the cost will seem negligible; if you’re struggling to make your rent each month, deciding to spend £34 simply to vote will seem a hefty cost to pay if it means cutting down on your food and fuel budget for a week or two.
The message this move sends is that people can’t be trusted to vote. If you already feel as though the political system has forgotten you, and you feel voting makes little difference, planning weeks in advance to secure the ID you need to vote is unlikely to increase voter turnout. At the moment, campaigners on polling day battle to spread the message that you don’t need your polling card to vote, so that people who might otherwise not vote can drop into their polling station on the way home from work. Making voters jump through hoops is a retrograde step and assumes guilt on the part of voters. To properly combat electoral fraud, a properly funded police unit with the resources to investigate organised fraud makes far more sense.
Earlier this year, 800,000 people found they’d dropped off the electoral register. In the run up to the EU referendum, campaigners scrabbled to communicate this, and get people re-enrolled, since thousands had no idea they’d been disenfranchised quietly. Adding yet more layers of bureaucracy to the process of voting, and a requirement for a form of ID that costs voters is yet more gerrymandering, which will lead to the poorest, and most voiceless, without the prospect of a vote.
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