Why Critics Say Photo ID Law Amounts To 'Voter Suppression' To Benefit The Tories

Campaigners and opposition parties argue plan to combat virtually non-existent fraud will disenfranchise young people and minorities.
Labour's Richard Burgon, the Green Party's Jenny Jones, Lib Dems Sarah Green and Alistair Carmichael hands in a petition signed by over 100,000 people to 10 Downing Street asking the government to scrap voter ID requirements.
Labour's Richard Burgon, the Green Party's Jenny Jones, Lib Dems Sarah Green and Alistair Carmichael hands in a petition signed by over 100,000 people to 10 Downing Street asking the government to scrap voter ID requirements.
Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images

The government has introduced new compulsory ID rules for those voting in person during England’s local elections next month – but the move has sparked criticism that more marginalised communities will face fresh challenges to vote.

The government has said the move will prevent voter fraud and protect democracy. But opposition parties and campaigners claim the plan is based on a false premise that actually amounts to “voter suppression” – locking out millions of voters without ID out of the democratic process.

As campaigners delivered a petition to Downing Street calling on the government to “urgently scrap” the new rules, here’s what we know about the controversial move.

What is happening?

Those turning up at polling stations will be required to show a form of photo identification, such as a passport, driving licence or blue badge.

The voter ID rules apply to England as of the May 4 local elections and will come into force for UK general elections from October.

The government predicts the policy will add £180 million to the cost of running elections over the course of a decade.

More than 8,000 council seats in England are up for grabs across 230 local authorities, ranging from small rural areas to some of the largest towns and cities. Polls are also taking place to choose mayors in Bedford, Leicester, Mansfield and Middlesbrough.

Is there any evidence of voter fraud?

The UK has very low levels of proven electoral fraud – during last year’s local and mayoral elections, there was not a single proven case of in-person voter fraud.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has pointed out voter personation, the form of fraud the regulations are aimed at stopping, is “vanishingly rare”.

She said: adding: “Over the last 10 years there have been about 243 million votes cast in elections, and how many people have been convicted of voter fraud? Four. That is 0.0000005%.”

“You are more likely to be hit by lightning 54 times than fall victim to voter personation fraud,” she added.

Why are people claiming this is ‘voter suppression’?

Members of marginalised groups are less likely to have ID, according to campaigners, with women, those living in urban areas, and people under 20 and over 65 are less likely to hold a driving licence. A recent Department for Transport survey found that only 53% of the Black population hold a driving licence, compared with 76% of the white population.

But there’s another element that critics argue shows a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise young people. Bus and travel passes for older and disabled people are being accepted as photo IDs – but the young people’s travel cards is not being permitted.

Long established polling suggests these groups are less likely to vote Conservative.

The Bafta Award-winning creator of The Thick Of It, Armando Ianucci, has also thrown his weight behind the campaign opposing voter ID laws.

He recently tweeted a picture of the back of a polling card which set out the list of acceptable forms of voter ID, and wrote: “Card gives many options for elderly or those with disability. None, NONE, for younger or student voters. The policy is simply biased against younger voters, designed to suppress their vote.”

The organisers of the petition, which has over 100,000 signatures, include campaign groups Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society, Open Britain and Fair Vote UK.

Representatives of the campaign groups were joined by Labour Party MP Richard Burgon, Liberal Democrat MPs Alistair Carmichael and Sarah Green, and the Green Party peer Jenny Jones.

Jones said: “The government has actually perpetrated voter fraud.

“They have pushed through a bill that is going to prevent certain groups, particularly younger people, from voting.”

Burgon described the voter ID programme as a “draconian, authoritarian attack” on voting rights.

Carmichael dismissed the suggestion that requiring photo ID at the polls is necessary to prevent voter fraud, stating: “It is a solution in search of a problem. We have no historic problem with voter impersonation in this country.”

What could the impact be?

Experts have suggested that given the low level of personation offences, and the limited impact on election results of such offences thus far, mean the main impact will be to prevent a large number of people from voting.

At two trials of voter ID in the 2018 and 2019 local elections, more than 1,000 would-be voters were turned away from polling stations and did not return.

What are the authorities doing?

The Electoral Commission, which oversees elections, has been running a campaign urging voters to prepare for the changes, with adverts on TV, radio, billboards and online. The televised advert says people must take ID to ballot boxes in the future, and those without can apply for a free certificate to vote.

But take-up of the so-called Voter Authority Certificate has been limited. As of Wednesday, the number of people who have applied for a certificate is 69,852. This falls far short of the government’s estimate of around 4% of the population, equating to 2.1 million people, who do not have a valid form of photo ID.

Defending its decision to push ahead with voter ID, a government spokesperson said: “We cannot be complacent when it comes to ensuring our democracy remains secure.

“Everyone eligible to vote will have the opportunity to do so and 98% of electors already have an accepted form of identification.

“Photo identification has been used in Northern Ireland elections since 2003 and we’re working closely with the sector to support the rollout and funding the necessary equipment and staffing.”


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