“On May 3rd 2018, 350 people were denied a vote in their local council elections. Their crime? Not possessing the right ID. The minister hailed these trials of mandatory voter ID as a ‘success’. The government must have a strange definition of success.
The scheme disenfranchised far more ordinary voters than potential wrongdoers: in a single day across the five councils, twice as many people didn’t vote due to having incorrect ID as have been accused of personation in eight years across the whole of the UK.
Out of 45 million votes last year, there were just 28 allegations of ‘personation’ (only one was solid enough to result in conviction). And yet the government seems determined to pursue voter ID, a policy we now know could cost up to £20 million per general election. This change to how we vote is a marked departure from the trust-based British way of running elections, and with little evidence to justify it.
It’s claimed that mandatory voter ID could boost faith in the democratic process. Yet according to academic research, 99 percent of election staff do not think fraud has occurred in their polling stations. Eighty-eight percent (88%) of the public say they think our polling stations are safe. And studies show that more accessible elections have greater electoral integrity – not the other way round.
The policy of mandatory strict ID presents a significant risk to democratic access and equality. Millions of people lack the strictest forms of required documentation. Documentation that is costly to acquire. It’s one of the reasons why organisations from the Runnymede Trust to the Salvation Army and Stonewall are concerned about these plans. The Windrush scandal earlier this year highlighted exactly the difficulties some legitimate voters could have in accessing identity documents – through no fault of their own.
If mandatory ID were to be rolled out nationally, it could potentially result in tens of thousands of voters being denied a say. And it would hit the already marginalised hardest: poorer C2DE social grade voters were half as likely to say they were aware of the ID requirements before the trials this May. And despite the costly publicity campaign this time, after election day, an average of around a quarter of residents were not aware of the pilots in four of the council areas – around four in 10 were not aware in Watford.
Imposing ID could have a significant impact on election outcomes, too. Thirteen seats were won at the 2017 Parliamentary election with a majority less than the number of people denied a vote in Bromley alone this May.
Yet still the government insists on running more trials of mandatory ID despite a broader commitment to improve democratic engagement and access. It is clear that much work needs to be done to remove barriers to voting, not to construct new ones. The most widespread problem poll staff have highlighted is voters turning up and not being on the register. Access for voters with disabilities is also a frequently cited problem.
We’ve learnt a lot this year, with our election and information regulators and parliamentarians highlighting the shocking state of the unregulated ‘wild west’ that is online campaigning. From the spread of disinformation, to secret political donations and ‘dark ads’, the real threats to our democracy are becoming clear.
In the face of these challenges, imposing voter ID is like rearranging the deckchairs of our democracy while we head towards an iceberg. The crucial task for government now is to focus on the real problems – we need to get to work solving them.”