Charities and civil society groups warn over mandatory voter ID scheme

By agency reporter
May 2, 2019

A coalition of charities, civil society figures and campaign groups have issued a stark warning about the government’s mandatory voter ID plans, raising concerns that excluding those without ID will ‘pull up the drawbridge’ for millions of people. 

Groups including Age UK, Liberty, the British Youth Council, Gendered Intelligence and democracy experts like the Electoral Reform Society are among those who fear that the government’s plans will further divide democracy in the UK. They are calling for ministers to drop the plans which could exclude "millions on the margins".

The joint call follows a new briefing from the ERS highlighting that there were just eight allegations of ‘personation’ fraud in the whole of 2018. Voters in 10 council areas will be forced to bring ID to the polling station today (2 May 2019), or be denied a vote. 

New figures released by the Electoral Commission in March 2019 show that, of the 266 cases investigated by police relating to the 2018 local and mayoral elections and local by-elections, more than half (140) were campaigning offences and just one in five (57) related to complaints made about the voting process.

Personation fraud at the polling station – the crime of pretending to be someone else at the ballot box, which is what the government’s continuing voter ID pilots aim to address – accounted for just eight of the 266 allegations made in 2018. No further action was taken for seven of these allegations and one was locally resolved.

Further research by the Electoral Commission shows that around 3.5 million citizens (7.5 per cent of the electorate) do not have access to photo ID. If voter identification requirements were restricted to passports or driving licenses, around 11 million citizens (24 per cent of the electorate) could potentially be disenfranchised.

Women, those living in urban areas, the under 20s and over 65s were less likely to hold a driving license. Indeed, since the 1990s, possession of a driving license has dropped by 40 per cent among under 20s – making it a poor basis for a voter ID policy, according to the charities and campaigners.

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “These voter ID plans – if rolled out nationally -  could pull up the drawbridge for millions of voters, including many already on the margins. Millions lack photographic ID, meaning the scheme could lock out both older voters, young voters, and those whose current ID does not match their gender. The government must urgently rethink its drive to make it harder to vote, and instead improve concentrate on improving access to democracy – not undermining it.”

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director of Age UK, said: “We are worried that requiring proof of identity at the ballot box could inadvertently impede some older people from voting, since they are far less likely than younger groups to have forms of photo ID like passports and driving licences readily to hand.  We understand that it is important to reduce the risks of electoral fraud but this could end up undermining the democracy they are designed to protect.  We therefore urge the Government to think again."

Sam Grant, Policy and Campaigns Manager, Liberty, said: “Last year’s voter ID pilots saw hundreds of people denied their right to vote, yet the Government’s response has been to run even more pilots. This will further threaten people’s right to vote and will disproportionately affect young people, older people, disabled people, transgender people, BAME communities and the homeless. Again, the Government is risking fundamental human rights in an effort to solve a problem that the statistics show does not really exist.”

Sarah Pickard, Senior Lecturer and researcher on young people's political participation, said: "At a time when young people are showing how engaged they are with political issues and calling for positive action from politicians, voter ID trials are creating more obstacles to young people's electoral participation. Those from marginalised backgrounds will be locked out from their democratic right to vote when politicians should be enabling and encouraging them."

Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson, Chair, British Youth Council said: “The British Youth Council are extremely concerned about any moves towards demanding Voter ID during elections. We believe that the right of young people, and other marginalised communities, to vote must be protected. We encourage the Government to take the concerns of these communities into account, to reconsider the further implementation of the voter ID scheme, and look at different solutions that are proportionate to the actual risk of electoral fraud. We cannot afford to be in a position where legitimate people are turned away from the ballot box.”

Dennis Reed, Director of Silver Voices, said: "Up to 2 million pensioners do not possess photo ID. The over 65s are the most likely group not to have a passport or a driving licence. Senior citizens are the most law-abiding and conscientious voters, so why should  it be them being turned away from our polling stations? We doubt whether a single pensioner has ever been prosecuted for personation and this policy is therefore a form of age discrimination.”

Alexandra Runswick, Director of Unlock Democracy, said: “Participating in our democracy through voting is a right not a privilege, and placing undue and unjustified restrictions on that right is an abuse of power. Instead of dealing with the national democratic crisis in front of their faces, the government is choosing to push ahead with this heavy-handed and costly solution to a phantom problem. This policy will very likely disenfranchise some of the most marginalised communities, and this attack on the public engagement in democracy through voting should not go ahead.”

Cara English, Policy Engagement Officer at Gendered Intelligence, said : “Having to use photo ID to exercise the democratic right to vote would be problematic, if not impossible, for many trans people. For reasons of identity, safety or money, many trans people showing up to vote would simply not appear as they would on their photo ID and may be turned away. Adding another layer of bureaucracy and exclusion to these people's lives would be an unnecessary and expensive injustice. We should be focusing on ensuring higher voter turnout for all people, not pushing some further into the margins and away from the voting booth.”

Matt Gillow, Founder of TalkPolitics, said: “At a time when trust in politics is at it's lowest in decades, it's totally wrong that politicians are trying to put up even more barriers to democracy. Last year's Voter ID trials showed us that rolling out the scheme nationwide will have a genuine effect on whether people actually cast their ballot. Instead of pursuing a misguided, ill-thought out plan, politicians should be considering how we can encourage more people to engage, not less."

* Three different types of identification requirements are being tested: In Broxtowe, Craven, Derby, North Kesteven and Braintree,voters will have to present either one piece of photo ID or two pieces of non-photo ID. In Mid-Sussex, Watford and North West Leicestershire, voters will have to take along their poll card or present photo ID. Finally, in Pendle and Woking, only photo ID will be accepted.

* Electoral Reform Society https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

[Ekk/4]

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.