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We should all be worried about Voter ID...

For the very first time, people (on mainland Britain) will be required to present photo identification to cast a ballot in this May’s local elections in a controversial overhaul of how the UK approaches elections. Changes to the Elections Act 2022 have sparked criticism over threats to local democracy, and whether efforts to prevent electoral fraud are in fact disenfranchising vulnerable people.

The primary criticism of the changes to the Elections Act is that they are a “solution in search of a problem,” as reported by the independent Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). To make matters worse, as PACAC also notes, this Act completely misses the opportunity to “consolidate a voluminous and fragmented body of electoral law”. The new law, therefore, fails on two counts:

  1. This law seeks to solve problems (voter impersonation) which are not real

  2. This law ignores the actual problems facing our electoral system

Electoral fraud in the UK is exceedingly rare. Electoral expert, Professor Toby James, of The University of East Anglia has said that “research has consistently shown that impersonation is not a widespread problem at polling stations”. Furthermore, The Electoral Commission’s annual review of election fraud since 2017 has consistently concluded that there is “no evidence of large scale electoral fraud”. 2019 saw both European and Parliamentary elections conducted nationwide, and just 34 cases of impersonation. This was no exception. By the government’s own admission, there is no evidence of large-scale voter impersonation fraud.

Secondly, these policies will have extreme impacts on democratic participation in the UK. There are currently 2.1 million British citizens (more than 5% of the UK electorate) without approved forms of ID. Furthermore, the Government scheme to provide free voter IDs has been taken up by fewer than 21,000 people (more than 0.5% of the eligible). To make matters worse, recent polling has suggested that an overwhelming majority of voters are not even aware of this change. Omnisis polling has found that fully 60% of Britons did not know that ID was mandatory. When similar changes were introduced to Northern Ireland in 2003, there was a corresponding 2.3% drop in participation.

These changes will not impact everyone equally. William Wragg, Conservative member for Hazel Grove, has raised the alarm on the potential impact on poorer, younger, and elderly voters. In his report he highlighted that the Government’s own research shows that some groups have a “lower rate of identification ownership”. Driving licence ownership rates vary greatly with age. The DVLA found that while over 99% of those aged 32 to 69 own either a driving licence or provisional licence, these numbers drop to 80% for those 18 to 20, and finally just 8% of those 90-plus have valid licence cards. The Government’s choice of acceptable ID also risks alienation of younger voters. Inexplicably, student photo Oysters are unacceptable whilst over-65 oysters are officially promoted. Moreover, student cards, often the only form of photo ID students carry, are not acceptable.

The Government should be commended however for its attempts to improve provisions for people with disabilities. Section nine of the Act mandates that returning officers provide equipment for partially sighted or blind persons to vote independently. However, disability advocates have been muted in their support in light of the perceived anti-democratic nature of the bill.

Thirdly, the Government has further angered the independent PACAC with its last minute change of electoral law for mayoral and PCC elections. The decision to replace the Supplementary Vote with First Past The Post was taken with next to no consultation of the local stakeholders. Dan Norris, Andy Burnham, Dan Jarvis, and many other metro mayors, have been incensed by the lack of consideration they received from the government. Jamie Driscoll, Metro Mayor for Tyneside, went as far as to say that this move would “inevitably fuel cynicism and growing loss of trust in our democracy” and “runs directly counter to the principle of

local control which devolution is meant to enshrine”. Finally, the PACAC’s independent report concluded that the introduction of this change was “unsatisfactory”, and “disrespectful to the House”... a damning conclusion.

So with the Elections Act 2022, we have a seriously flawed piece of legislation. Participation will almost certainly drop. For the youngest, oldest, and most vulnerable in society this drop will be especially harsh. The Government’s stated aim with this bill was to respond to the “loss of confidence in the Electoral Commission”. A laudable aim. Yet, as William Wragg explains, this bill actively “undermines public confidence in the effective and independent regulation of the electoral system.”


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