Boris Johnson’s government often presents itself as one of messy internal contradictions but no one should ever make the mistake of thinking that they do anything without a reason.
At first sight the inclusion in the Queen’s Speech of a commitment to introduce an “Electoral Integrity Bill” looks like a solution in search of a problem. In 2019 only three people were convicted of it under existing legislation. In any other government it would look like a piece of civil service inspired regulation but this, remember, is the government that vowed to banish “the blob”.
A clue to its purpose may be found in other measures in the Government’s programme. The proposals to reform the law of judicial review, for example, tell us that this is a prime minister who does like being told what to do. You don’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface to find that Old Etonian sense of entitlement.
At first sight it looks like a modest proposal. The requirement for most people will be to produce a form of photo ID. For most people that will be a passport or a driving licence. For most people it will not be a barrier and therein lies the rub. To say that for “most people” it will not be a barrier to participation in the democratic process concedes the fact that for some people it will be.
Who will these people be?
In March a coalition of organisations brought together by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) and which included Operation Black Vote, Age UK, Centrepoint and The Salvation Army warned that measures of this sort would affect young people, older people, disabled people, transgender and gender non-conforming people, minority communities and the homeless.
They highlighted also Electoral Commission estimates that 3.5m people in the UK (7.5 per cent of the electorate) had no form of photo ID and that 11m people (24 per cent of the electorate) do not have access to either a passport of a photographic driving licence.
Suddenly you see that these seemingly technocratic proposals are less benign. In fact they begin to look like a straight lift from the Republican play book on voter suppression.
Requiring people to show identification to vote is yet another hurdle in an already burdensome process. Without automatic voter registration, getting added to the electoral roll requires active participation and time that many will not give.
Introducing compulsory voter ID will disproportionately affect ethnic minorities, as well as younger people and those on low incomes. The bill will effectively disenfranchise more people than cases of voter fraud it will present.
During ten trials in 2019 in England, 1,968 people were turned away for not having appropriate identification. More 700 of those did not return to vote.
You don’t have to be a genius to work out that the people most likely to be affected here are the people least likely to vote Conservative. Electoral Integrity? Voter Suppression more like.
When Dominic Cummings left Downing Street many hoped that the culture war that he had gamed left with him. The Queen’s Speech suggests it is only just beginning.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on home affairs, Northern Ireland and constitutional reform — and the party’s MP for Orkney and Shetland
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