The Tories’ voter ID requirements are voter suppression. Their power play might not have worked this time – but that doesn’t mean we can let our guard down now.
It’s not an uncommon response from Brits, in the name of keeping ourselves sane, to look at whatever is going on in America and say to ourselves, “Well, at least we’re not there.” Lately, this reassurance is not as comforting as it once was. Drawing any comparison to the US feels like tempting fate while we are facing similar issues, from healthcare privatisation down to new American-style barriers to voting.
The Elections Act 2022 is the latest democratic hiccup in the UK, going fairly unnoticed until it came to voting day on the 4 May local elections. It introduced requirements for voters to bring approved photographic identification to the polling booth, which now apply at all elections.
Given that the government promised to provide free photo ID to those who need it, this might seem unproblematic at first. But, by the deadline of 25 April, there had been 85,700 online applications for a certificate. That is only 4% of the two million people estimated to need it.
As per usual, questioning the government’s case for more than ten seconds makes it fall apart. Or, in this case, even sooner when a minister admits it on stage.
Speaking at the National Conservatism conference on 15 January, everyone’s least-favourite Victorian aristocrat Jacob Rees-Mogg MP said: “Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them – as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections.
“We found the people who didn’t have ID were elderly and they by and large voted Conservative. So, we made it hard for our own voters and we upset a system that worked perfectly well.”
Intentionally deterring people from voting – also known as suppressing voters – is obviously undemocratic. But, the Tories losing over 1,000 council seats shows that maybe, just maybe, the public will not let this slide at the next general election, no matter how hard the forces that be try to stop us.
Of the list of IDs allowed under the new rules, five are specifically aimed at older people, including the older person’s bus pass and Oyster 60+ card. On the unluckier end of the age spectrum, an impressive zero approved forms of ID are specific to young people. 18+ Oyster cards, 16-25 railcards, and student IDs are all missing from the list. This makes the rules even stricter than in the US, which permits college IDs.
“The government has discriminated against groups who are less likely to have ID, and then within that, they have discriminated against young people,” says Tom Brake, director of not-for-profit organisation Unlock Democracy. “The only explanation I can think of is that they are keener on allowing older people to vote than young people.” Who would have thought?
Keeping young people away from the poll would have, theoretically, given the Conservatives a leg-up. Just 9% of 18 to 24-year-olds intended to vote for them, while 58% intended to vote Labour.
What are the risks?
Speaking before the elections, Tom said: “The risk is that people will turn up with unapproved ID, or won’t hear about the new rules at all, or won’t be able to get back to the polling booth in time to vote.”
One in five people with a limiting disability said the policy would make it difficult for them to vote, compared to one in 20 able-bodied people. 5% of people with a severely limiting disability have no suitable ID at all.
“Why would we vote for a party that got us into this position?” asks Nabeela Mowlana, Chair of Young Labour and Sheffield City Councillor for Park and Arbourthorne. Speaking before the elections, she said: “I’m worried about working-class communities in particular. If young people can’t afford to travel abroad, they won’t have passports. If they can’t afford to drive, they won’t have a licence. It’s clearly, disproportionately, unfair.”
The Electoral Reform Society has supported these concerns, pointing out that even the free voter ID may not be easy or cost-neutral to access. Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the ERS, said: “Voters may need to find somewhere to access a computer, pay for travel to a library or take time off work to match library opening hours. At a time when many more people are struggling to pay bills and make ends meet, putting a paywall around the polling station is a damaging move for our democracy.”
In another world, or at least a country other than the UK, the logistical challenge of getting people to register for IDs and sending them these IDs would be the smallest issue with the Act, but not here.
No, here the order of events is of course the government first admitting that “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable” due to “major issues” with the budget. Then, they plough on with implementing the Act anyway. Lastly, within a fortnight of voting, admitting that the “gerrymandering” has, indeed, “backfired”.
To save some pennies, the government replaced the planned biometric ID cards with a Voter Authority Certificate. This was a piece of paper with a photo printed on it, which will somehow cost £180m over a decade. It certainly brings another meaning to “free” democracy.
Are there any real benefits?
Tom says, “The argument for voter ID in the first place was to prevent fraud. We know it is minimal in this country, but if it did exist, a paper form would surely be easy to fake. So is the government’s motive here actually to do with fraud? I don’t know.”
There were just four convictions of voter fraud in 2019. Only one of those was for voter impersonation. No convictions at all have happened since then.
For Ted Grainger, a member of the Nottingham University Conservative Association and the news editor of its magazine ‘Blue Press’, this figure is far too high. He is “strongly in favour” of photo ID, and says, “It’s not even about if fraud is actually happening, it’s about protecting our elections from accusations of it. I fear a situation like in America, where there are allegations. We have to nip it in the bud before any even happens.”
This is somehow a more convincing justification than what the government came up with. The novelty of the word “allegations” has perhaps worn off, and it is missing from the impact assessment of the Act. It instead states it aims to ensure “fraud, intimidation and interference have no place in our democracy.”
Raising awareness about the Act should be the priority from now on according to Jack McAteer, co-founder of opposition group Hands Off Our Vote.
“We organised the whole campaign to raise awareness among young people, wrote to ministers, and started an e-petition to get the Bill debated in parliament,” he says. “It hit the 300,000 signatures it needed to be debated in Parliament. But we got a response from Rees-Mogg, who was the Leader of the House at the time, refusing.”
Interesting. I wonder why.
What can we do now?
Jack, now a campaigns director at the Confederation for British Industry, has moved on to other “fights”, in his words, but has noticed how quiet the government is keeping about the Act.
“There has been no communication about why we need it,” he said, speaking ahead of Rees-Mogg’s confession. “What is the urgency behind it? They need to make that argument positively, otherwise, it just looks like an unqualified power grab.”
Tom, Jack, and Nabeela all advise that people continue supporting campaigns in the Democracy Defence Coalition, which includes the Electoral Reform Society and Fair Vote UK alongside Unlock Democracy and Hands Off Our Vote.
“When they bring in regulations like this, it makes us feel powerless,” says Nabeela. “It’s hard to imagine going up against the government, and it’s meant to feel that way.
“Every single one of our rights has been fought for and won by people before us, and we must campaign and fight now to retain them. It sends a message that we will not be apathetic, and that is much more impactful than they will ever allow us to believe.”