Government plans to enforce ID checks at polling stations are due to come into effect in May’s elections. Will this “disenfranchise” ethnic minorities or is it a fair measure?
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, or so goes the proverb, but then again, humans, and governments, have an unquenchable urge to improve things even if they may not appear evidently damaged.
Britain has been a beacon of un-interrupted democracy throughout modern history since the Great Reform Act in 1832 extended the franchise, sort of. It’s not been without its foibles, however, women had to resort to violence to get politicians to listen and our voting system has, variously, delivered rather skewed results on occasion.
More importantly, the electoral system has been blighted by recent attempts to pervert it. Following the 2017 General Election, there were 28 cases of alleged in-person voter fraud, of 44.6 million votes cast. That equates to one in 1,600,000 or 0.00000063%. One person was subsequently convicted of using both their postal vote and in-person vote to vote Labour. Cue outrage.
Voter ID checks will be used for the first time in England in May’s local elections next week in a limited pilot that will see people in Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking turned away if they cannot prove their identity.
Will voters be deterred?
Following the Windrush scandal, where up to 50,000 British nationals of Caribbean origin face barriers to securing their citizenship and accessing essential public services, there are fears that, like the hostile environment immigration policy, the move could deter migrant voters.
“The Commission is concerned that the requirement to produce identification at the given local elections will have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics,” wrote Claire Collier, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s legal officer, to Cabinet Office minister David Lidington in a letter leaked to the Observer.
“Particularly older people, transgender people, people with disabilities and/or those from ethnic minority communities. In essence, there is a concern that some voters will be disenfranchised as a result of restrictive identification requirements.”
Shouldn’t be too tough, many people must think. They just need to bring their drivers license along; after all, ID documents are required to collect a parcel or hire a car.
If the Windrush scandal is anything to go by, though, it proves the task of proving your identity can often be anything but simple and invariably affects poorer people and those from ethnic minorities.
Why implement ID checks?
Voter impersonation more than doubled between 2014 and 2016, according to figures from the Electoral Commission, and ministers fear reports of fraud undermine democracy and weaken the United Kingdom’s strong tradition of holding free and fair elections.
Also, in 2015 it emerged that the election of Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman had been marred by corruption as ballots were double-cast or cast from false addresses while others were bribed to vote for the disgraced former politician.
Voters in Northern Ireland, however, have been required to show photo ID since 2003 and, argued Minister for the Constitution Chloe Smith, it has proven to be effective at tackling fraud and hasn’t disaffected election turnout.
“All eligible voters who have none of the required identification will be accommodated for by local authorities,” promised Smith. “A wide range of IDs will be accepted, from marriage certificates and passports to bus passes, depending on where you live.”
Given the minuscule percentage of actual fraud cases, the Electoral Reform Society said the government plans to make voters prove their identity at polling stations were overbearing.
“The number of alleged cases of electoral fraud involving impersonation is actually falling,” said chief executive Darren Hughes. “Yet the government are intent on testing this draconian measure which risks excluding many legitimate voters from our democracy.”
Voting systems across the world
Under the current system in the UK, voters are sent a poll card by their local authority once they have registered to vote. You arrive at your allocated electoral station, say your name, and hey presto, if you’re on the register you can exercise your democratic right!
Other countries do it differently. In Canada, France, Norway and other EU states you need to show ID, while in India practically everyone has a specific voting card. In Australia, where voting is compulsory, voters do not need ID but to be able to answer three questions: (1) what is your full name; (2) where do you live; and (3) have you voted before in this election?
A comprehensive study found that strict voting identification laws have a differentially negative impact on the turnout of Hispanics, Blacks, and mixed-race Americans in elections. “By instituting strict voter ID laws, states can alter the electorate and shift outcomes toward those on the right,” wrote the authors of the report in the Washington Post.
“Where these laws are enacted, the influence of Democrats and liberals wanes and the power of Republicans grows. Unsurprisingly, these strict ID laws are passed almost exclusively by Republican legislatures.”
There are other issues that blight our democracy in the UK, such as overspending by the wealthiest party, alleged illegal coordination between pro-Brexit groups and the fact the First Past the Post system has historically favoured the Conservative Party, and to a lesser extent Labour due to splits in the progressive and liberal vote.
So will this policy, the next step in the long road to democratic maturity, be a success? If it mimics the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ then don’t be surprised if people are disenfranchised by accident.