The Voter ID Stitch-Up

The Tories claim to be introducing Voter ID to protect Britain's elections. But its effect will be voter suppression - with many lower-income voters locked out of the ballot box.

Since 2016, the approach the government has taken toward tackling voter fraud could be well compared to the approach a steamroller takes when crushing a single grape into some tarmac.

Evidence tells us that incidences of voter fraud are very rare. In 2017, 28 allegations of electoral fraud in a polling station were made, with just one person being convicted out of more than 44 million votes cast that year.

That suggests voter fraud is, thankfully, a very small problem in the UK.

So let’s look at a bigger one. Shoplifting is a very common crime in the UK and has increased by 22 per cent since 2011. A quarter of businesses have experienced shoplifting, accounting for 63 per cent of all crime against the wholesale and retail sector.

Clearly, more needs to be done to tackle shoplifting and it is therefore the responsibility of the government to respond with some effective policies to combat it.

They could just do nothing–existing criminal offences can and should be used to prosecute shoplifters, after all.

Or they could invest more heavily in police–we’ve lost 21,000 police officers since 2010 and Labour has continued to call for those numbers to be brought back up.

Or they could signal a massively over-the-top crackdown and require every retailer, from the busiest supermarket to the most peaceful village shop, to have airport-style security, body scanners and rigorous bag searches as mandatory for every shopper.

This would clearly be a disproportionate response and the cost of implementing such a ridiculous policy would far outweigh the benefits.

Shoplifting might drastically decrease. But it would create huge queues outside every store, be very expensive to manage, and, most importantly, it would be the end of the high street as we know it, discouraging honest shoppers from being able to shop for their everyday needs.

It may seem ridiculous for me to be discussing getting frisked and getting a full body scan just because you want pick up a frozen pizza for dinner. But it’s relevant because this ludicrous strategy for tackling shoplifting has many similarities with the government’s actual policy for tackling electoral fraud.

In 2016 the government committed to tackle electoral fraud in polling stations, also known as “voter impersonation,” when someone pretends to be somebody else in order to cast one fake vote. Their response was to pilot identification requirements at polling stations, also known as ‘Voter ID’ in some areas, during local government elections over the last two years, before attempting to roll this out nationwide at the next general election.

As I said at the outset, 28 allegations of voter impersonation were made in the last general election in 2017, for which just one person was convicted, out of 44 million votes cast. In 2018, this figure fell to just seven allegations, all of which were resolved locally or required no further action from the police.

So what are the benefits of the government’s policy of introducing ID in polling stations?

They argue that Voter ID increases public confidence in the security of our elections. And research suggests this was accurate in evaluations of the 2018 and 2019 pilot schemes. Increasing public confidence in our democratic processes is obviously important, particularly in times of growing political uncertainty and a general lack of faith in our democratic process.

However, crucially, the Government cannot provide any concrete evidence that identification requirements prevent actual attempts to commit impersonation fraud.

So what are costs of introducing Voter ID? There are many. So far at least 1,100 people have been denied their right to vote because they did not have the necessary ID. This is a significant number, particularly when only a small number of local authorities have taken part in the pilots and when allegations of voter impersonation nationally are only in the dozens.

We also know that Voter ID presents “a significant barrier to democratic engagement and risk compromising a basic human right for some of the most marginalised groups in society”. These are not the words of the Labour Party but of a coalition of 40 leading charities and academics.

Photographic ID is not universal in the UK and is not provided by the state. In the UK 3.5 million citizens do not have access to photo ID and eleven million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence. In 2013/14, 1.7 million lacked even a bank account. That makes mandatory Voter ID a barrier to millions of people from exercising their right to vote. The government has made no suggestion it will introduce free provision of photographic identification to redress this.

The Windrush scandal demonstrated very clearly that it could be much more difficult for some communities to provide the official documentation which is now needed for legitimate voters to take part in our democratic process. It is the same ‘hostile environment’ all over again and is heading towards authoritarianism, shutting out our fellow citizens from public life and treating communities who have made Britain their home as second-class citizens.

And there are other routes the Government could take to tackle electoral fraud. The police are already responsible for investigating any allegations of electoral fraud and prosecuting authorities can take cases of alleged electoral fraud to court. Instead of preventing honest voters from exercising their democratic right to vote they could provide the police with all the resources they need to catch and prosecute the handful of genuine fraudsters.

The costs of implementing Voter ID clearly outweigh the benefits. Countless citizens have already been disenfranchised and many more will follow if this policy is rolled out.

So, why won’t the government halt the rollout and change course? Well, given the overwhelming evidence of the potential impact it will have on democratic equality, it is now clear that the Government’s fixation with Voter ID is a blatant attempt by the Tories to rig the result of future elections by voter suppression.

And, to shape the policy mood, the government continues to scaremonger about the extent of voter fraud taking place in this country, a tactic they have pinched from right-wing politicians in the US who are pursuing an ongoing strategy to roll back decades of progress on voting rights.

We cannot allow the Tories to follow a similar path of voter suppression. The right to vote lies at the heart of our democracy. It is disgraceful that the Tories are trying to take this away from us–starting with the most vulnerable. This government must abandon its dangerous policy immediately and restore the voting rights of every honest voter it has disenfranchised.