Using photo ID in British elections will harm democracy, say US civil rights groups

Plans to force people to show photo ID to take part in UK elections amount to Republican-style voter suppression and are likely to erode faith in the democratic process rather than reinforce it, three leading US civil rights groups have warned.

Peter Walker 

In an intervention that could prove embarrassing to ministers, US groups that were at the frontline of efforts to combat vote-blocking efforts by Donald Trump and his allies, said ID laws disproportionately affected people from poorer and more marginalised communities.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and Commons Cause said that while they did not campaign directly in the UK it was a common principle that such laws, without evidence of widespread election fraud, had a harmful impact.

Boris Johnson’s government is due to introduce a bill in the spring to make photo ID mandatory from 2023 for all UK-wide and English elections following two years of small-scale trials, despite repeated warnings from charities and others about its impact on groups less likely to possess the necessary documents.

“The real reason these laws are passed is to suppress the vote, and that is in fact what happens,” Caren Short, senior staff attorney with the SPLC, told the Guardian.

“There are certain communities that do not possess the required ID, or the underlying documents required to get the ID, and so it makes it harder for those folks to vote. That is what these laws are designed to do, and that is in fact what they do.”

Molly McGrath, a voting rights campaign strategist for the ACLU, said voter ID is “not about proving who you are – it’s about excluding the people who are least likely to have that ID”.

She said: “I can go to almost any place and find somebody who’s been disenfranchised. I’ve never gone to a food bank and not found somebody who needs an ID so they can vote.”

UK ministers insist a law is needed to combat what is officially termed voter personation – someone going to a polling station to physically cast a vote while pretending to be someone else.

But critics point out that the offence is virtually unknown in the UK. Following the 2019 general election, there was one conviction for voter personation. Between 2010 and 2016, spanning two general elections and the EU referendum, there were 146 allegations with seven convictions, including five in one single incident.

UK charities representing groups including older people, those from minority ethnic backgrounds and the homeless have urged the government to reconsider the law.

Sylvia Albert, the director of voting and elections at Common Cause, a Washington DC-based civil rights group, said introducing voter ID when there was negligible evidence of a problem tended to have the paradoxical effect of making voters trust elections less.

“They try to say that they want to protect the integrity of the election, but the reality that our elections have strong integrity,” she said. “By doing this you’re actually undermining their integrity.

“Instituting aspects of voter suppression, including voter ID, is allowing the politicians to choose their voters, and that is not the strength of a democracy.”

Whereas the UK trials of voter ID at English council elections in 2018 and 2019 permitted different areas to show a variety of documents, the law is expected to mandate photo ID such as a passport or driving licence. Those who do not have such ID will need to apply to their local council in advance of elections.

Cat Smith, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, said the government “should heed the warnings of these respected civil rights groups, who have seen first-hand the undemocratic and discriminatory impact of mandating voter ID at elections”. The ID law is also opposed by the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said mandatory ID was “a reasonable way to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud in our current system and strengthen its integrity”, and that the “overwhelming majority” of people were able to vote successfully in the pilots.

She added: “We will make sure this policy works for everyone. There will be free electoral ID available locally and we continue to work with a broad range of charities and civil society organisations.”