Perhaps a sign of a lacklustre Queen’s Speech, one of the issues gathering most attention since the monarch’s trip to Parliament yesterday is the “Electoral Integrity Bill”, which sets out plans to require identification to be shown prior to voting in a polling station for UK-wide elections.
The full text on the bill has not yet been published, and it is unclear what ID may be required but fury has already poured forth from numerous quarters at the idea. I was thoroughly ‘ratioed’ on Twitter for arguing the move constituted an attack on younger voters, poorer voters, and ethnic minority voters. Senior Conservative MP and civil liberties campaigner David Davis said the move was an “illiberal solution for a non-existent problem”. And the human rights organisation Liberty said plans would amount to government “creating new barriers to voting”.
A briefing paper on the plans published by the Commons Library boasts that since the requirement to show photo ID before voting was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2003, “allegations of ‘personation’, the crime of pretending to be someone else when you vote, have been eliminated.”
All well and good but the same paper also notes that in 2019 there were only 33 such allegations reported – resulting in one conviction and one caution – out of an electorate of 47 million registered voters. Talk about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
That is not to deny electoral fraud exists and measures to ensure the security of democracy procedures must of course be a priority in any democratic country, but we need to take a holistic view of the measures proposed and consider the virtue of a proportionate response.
Turnout in general elections has peaks and troughs but has sat in the mid-60 per cent range throughout the 2010s, having never previously fallen below 70 per cent prior to 2001. In the English local elections back in 2018, turnout was just under 35 per cent. We may like to consider voting a privilege and a sacred duty in a democracy but, in reality, many people do not participate – whether out of apathy or inability. Throwing up additional hurdles will inevitably reduce the number of people able to participate.
The Electoral Commission – which itself argues for the use of photo ID in elections – acknowledges that almost a quarter of the electorate does not have a photographic driving licence or passport. Men are much more likely than woman, and white people are more likely than black people to have a driving licence. Older voters who do have a driving licence may not have a photographic one. These are basic facts; it is not insulting or demeaning to women or black people to point out that they would be disproportionately affected by a requirement to show this kind of documentation prior to voting.
It remains to be seen whether the UK government will stick with these two forms of identification or widen it to include many others. The Electoral Commission recommends including many more common forms of ID such as bank statements and utility bills which would mean over 92 per cent of the electorate would have sufficient ID to vote but even that would leave over 3 million people without – 3 million people potentially removed of their right to participate in elections when the Electoral Commission itself notes there is “no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud” in the United Kingdom.
The UK government is using international examples of successful voter ID schemes to try and make its case, ignoring the fact that often they are examples of countries where government issued photo ID is common or even compulsory, meaning no citizen is disenfranchised by the requirement. The Northern Ireland example mentioned above saw no meaningful reduction in turnout following the requirement to provide photo ID, ignoring the fact that some ID had been required since the 1980s, meaning again the electorate were already equipped to deal with the change.
There are weaknesses in the UK’s electoral system but time and again the government finds itself tackling the wrong problem. Democratic rights are some of the most important a person has and any suggestion that those could be undermined should be treated seriously; the Queen’s Speech makes it more likely these rights could be removed by government than undermined by electoral wrongdoing.