For millions of voters, the most basic act of democratic citizenship – casting a vote – is about to get harder.
Under legislation being trailed in the media, it will no longer be possible simply to walk into a polling station, give your name and address, and cast a vote. Instead, voters will have to produce either a passport or a driving licence, to prove their identity. The government claims that this will reduce “the potential for voter fraud” and “strengthen the integrity of UK elections“. In reality, it risks locking millions of people out of the electoral process, while doing nothing to meet the real problems with our democracy.
More than three million people in Britain have no form of official photo ID. Nearly 11 million have neither a passport nor a driver’s licence. Those people are disproportionately poor, disadvantaged and from BAME communities. If they still wish to vote, it is reported that they will now have to contact their local council ahead of polling day, in order to prove their identity.
This is a cohort that is often suspicious of officialdom – and, in the wake of the Windrush Scandal, of demands to prove its identity. But let’s assume, for a moment, that they are willing to try. Let’s assume that they know who it is they’re supposed to contact; that they can get an answer; and that they have the time either to sit on hold for hours or to go into the office and present their credentials. A barrier will have been erected to one group of voters that simply does not exist for others. The effect will undoubtedly be to push down turnout among poor and minority voters.
In a democracy, the right to vote is a sacred principle. It is the foundation on which all our other democratic liberties rest. Any government that wants to put obstacles in the way of voting should face an extremely high burden of proof. Yet the Electoral Commission has found no evidence that “in-person” voter fraud is a problem, and it would be all but impossible to organise on an effective scale. Ministers are taking a hammer to millions of entirely legitimate voters – disproportionately poor, disproportionately black or Asian – to crack an imaginary nut.
The real problems with our electoral system lie elsewhere: in breaches of campaign finance rules, digital disinformation, fraudulent advertising and the manipulation of postal ballots. But these are crimes of the powerful, not the powerless. None will be affected by compulsory Voter ID.
If ministers care – as they should – about the purity of our elections, they could begin by reflecting on their own conduct. During the 2019 election, Conservative politicians circulated doctored news footage of a Labour politician, fraudulently disguised their twitter feed as a fact-checking site, and ran adverts so misleading that even Facebook took them down.
Britain’s electoral laws largely predate the internet, which means there is little serious regulation of online campaigning or the cash that pays for it. As Peter Geoghegan has documented in an important book, that has allowed unscrupulous campaigners – some of them now in positions of power and influence – simply to bypass much of the legal framework erected since the 19th century to protect our elections from corrupt influences.
If there is a problem with voter behaviour – as opposed to the conduct and financing of campaigns – it lies with postal voting, not with people turning up at the polling station. The rules on postal voting were liberalised in the early 2000s, and there is anecdotal evidence that fraud has increased as a result. Even here, we should act only on the basis of evidence. An independent inquiry should be established to investigate the scale and causes of any fraud. Only then will it be possible to assess what changes might be necessary.
Any democrat should be concerned for the purity of our elections. But taking these problems seriously means tackling laws and practices that benefit the powerful and the unscrupulous. It does not mean erecting new barriers to 3 million poorer voters, in the absence of any evidence that they have abused their rights.
British democracy has many flaws, but historically it has enjoyed one great strength. Unlike in the United States, access to the ballot box has generally been easy, and parties have resisted the temptation to suppress turnout. This law marks a step down a very different path, the effects of which are now painfully apparent across the Atlantic. For the sake of our democracy, and the rights of all its citizens, we should turn back now.
Reproduced with the very kind permission of the author from his excellent blog, The Gladstone Diaries.