The recent announcement that the Conservative government is planning to introduce new voter ID laws is a brazen act of voter suppression. Its sole purpose is to benefit the Conservatives electorally, by adding barriers to the electoral process that are known to negatively impact communities more likely to vote Labour – specifically ethnic minorities and poorer voters. It must be resisted.
At present the UK contains 3.5 million citizens who do not have access to photo ID and 11 million citizens who do not have a passport or driving licence. In mainland Europe mandatory national identity cards are the norm, but the UK is far more comparable to the US, where having a driver’s licence or passport ID correlates to social class.
In the US, Voter ID card laws have long been used as part of an ongoing strategy by Republican legislatures to roll back decades of progress on voting rights, often targeting black communities specifically. Given the current Conservative government’s penchant for dog-whistles, the UK legislation’s title—the Electoral Integrity Bill 2021—is grimly familiar to those aware of the Election Integrity Act 2021 (formally known as the Georgia Senate Bill 202), which Joe Biden labelled ‘Jim Crow in the twenty-first century’.
What is the official rationale for this move? The Tories’ main argument is that this will stamp out ‘electoral fraud’. This ambiguous term applies to a host of crimes completely unrelated to Voter ID – registration offences, nomination offences, campaigning offences, expenses offences, and so on. In-person voter ID fraud—where someone goes to a polling station, gives a fake name, and then votes on behalf of someone else—is vanishingly rare. This is primarily because it’s an almost pointless task given the risks and the number of people that would have to be involved to make even the smallest dent in an election.
Changing a result would require hundreds of trained operatives to know who would not be voting on a given day, plus their full name and address, and then to attend a polling station (only once) to vote on their behalf. It’s an incredibly risky and ineffective way to rig an election – especially compared to, say, disenfranchising 3.5 million people without voter ID. As former Conservative cabinet minister David Davis put it, this is an ‘illiberal solution for a non-existent problem’.
Trials for these new voter ID laws have already taken place. In 2018, five English local council elections piloted voter ID systems (Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford, and Woking) with further trials following in 2019. The Conservatives point to these as a great success, claiming ‘99.6% of electors were able to cast their votes without a problem’.
When you scratch below the surface, though, the results are more complicated. In 2018, 688 people were turned away for not having the correct ID, with 340 not returning to vote; in 2019, 2,000 people were turned away, with 750 not returning. These tests took place during local elections, where turnout is already around 30 percent lower on average, so those who did turn out to vote were more likely to be long-term habitual voters with above-average engagement and fortitude.
Given the incredibly low cases of electoral fraud, from a purely cost-benefit standpoint, the ID schemes were far more damaging democratically than the risks of in-person fraud. The paper produced by the Electoral Reform Society on the 2018 pilots—aptly titled ‘A Sledgehammer to Crack a Nut’—highlighted the real-world implications for these numbers: ‘Imposing ID could have a significant impact on election outcomes… Thirteen seats were won at the 2017 Parliamentary election with a majority less than the number of people denied a vote in Bromley alone this May.’
Labour’s Cat Smith, the Shadow Secretary of State for Young People and Democracy, has been an unwavering critic of the proposed Bill and a champion for expanding the franchise. In the 2019 manifesto, Labour promised the largest extension of the franchise in generations – reducing the voting age to 16, giving full voting rights to all UK residents, making sure everyone who is entitled to vote can do so by introducing a system of automatic voter registration.
Given the Conservative supermajority and the clear electoral interest involved in bringing in voter ID legislation for their party, resisting this legislation poses challenges. Inspiration can be drawn from the long-running tradition of civil rights activism in the US, with figures like Stacey Abrahams becoming a household name on the left as a champion for the hard graft of using community organising and movement building to challenge voter suppression.
However, we do not have the same kind of devolved electoral law as the US, and any movement to block these laws will require mobilisation on a national scale to put pressure on a national government decision. Since the Covid pandemic began we have seen examples of this with the U-turn over free school meals and the pause on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
One advantage, of course, is that progressives of all stripes will hold common cause on this – but the challenge will be building enough momentum, in an era in which the Conservatives do something appalling almost every week, for this to be treated with the seriousness that it deserves.
Currently, one of the voters asked for ID during the 2018 pilots is taking the Cabinet Office to court, claiming it acted unlawfully under the Representation of the People Act 2000. Under the banner of ‘defending our democracy’ campaigners are hoping this raises awareness of the issue and they can build a coalition large and loud enough to scrap these plans.