Last week, a rich, tax-payer-sponsored, old woman sat on a golden throne and announced several detrimental changes to how elections will work in this country. Part of this was the proposed Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which would scrap the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act that currently ensures elections are held every five years. Repealing this would mean the government could bring forward elections, calling them when they’re ahead in the polls.
Most importantly, though, the Electoral Integrity Bill details further extending the First Past The Post voting system and voting rights for British expats. It would also introduce controversial voter ID laws that could be in place as soon as the 2023 local elections. Costing the government an additional £20m per election, it would be an expensive and damaging piece of legislation that could disenfranchise significant parts of the population.
The government claims it is doing this to curb the near non-exist crime of voter fraud, that is, according to Tories, rubbishing the integrity of our elections. The irony is that the Conservatives have been in power for the past decade; their sudden attack on the legitimacy of elections only undermines their current premiership.
The truth is there is no widespread issue of voter fraud across the UK – and the government knows it. In an interview with Sky News on 11th May, Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted that there had only been six cases of voter fraud in the last election. In 2019, there were only 33 cases of voter impersonation at polling stations, out of 58 million votes.
But these plans are not new. Voter ID was trialled in the 2019 election and it proved disastrous. 740 people were turned away from the ballot box, over four times the number of voter fraud attempts since 2010. There’s clear cut evidence that voter ID is ineffective and further jeopardises democracy, but the government is pushing ahead anyway. Even the Prime Minister once thought voter ID was a bad idea. In 2004, Boris Johnson wrote for The Telegraph that he would rather “physically eat” his ID than have to show it at the polling booth. Clearly, his tune has changed.
So, why is the government comfortable disenfranchising the one-fifth of the electoral population who don’t have IDs? Well, it’s about who makes up that number and their voting intentions. There are considerable discrepancies in who has access to photo ID in the UK, which is why the introduction of voter ID is viewed by many as a purposeful voter suppression tactic. Black and brown communities, trans people, young voters and those without a fixed address are all more unlikely to own ID. These communities are already not being served by the government, so nothing is lost from icing them out of democracy.
The Runnymede Trust reported that 76 per cent of white people hold a full drivers licence, whereas 38 per cent of Asian people and more than half of Black people do not. Meanwhile, non-binary individuals are currently petitioning the state for legal recognition of their gender identity on legal documents, meaning lots of people don’t have access to representative ID. Many trans people also lack representative documentation – and applying for it is not free.
As it stands, homeless people can vote in elections if they state a location – for example, a shelter they frequently stay at – but this is no easy feat. Coupled with the fact that most homeless people don’t have access to identification, this new bill will completely disenfranchise them. The relationship between voter ID and housing also directly impacts younger voters, who are less likely to have driving licences than older voters and are more likely to be moving between temporary accommodation, making it harder to keep documents up to date.
In areas that trialled voter ID in 2019, young and BME voters were less likely to know about the changes and requirements, which in turn reduced their turnout. Even if the government reduced the barriers to accessing ID, the communication of these changes is clearly still missing vast swathes of the electorate.
We can look across the pond for further evidence that suggests voter ID is a suppressive tactic. In the US, 34 states have ID requirements to participate in elections and seven have strict photo ID laws. Over 21 million Americans lack access to a photo ID and the cost of getting this can be anywhere between $75 to $175. Even when money isn’t an issue, accessibility is. In some cases, Americans in rural working-class areas have to travel hundreds of miles to access the support needed to register for identification.
The impact of this? A 2014 study found that voter ID reduced turnout by two to three percentage points, significantly reducing the turnout of African Americans, of which a quarter lacked sufficient photo ID. Much like in the UK, the move to implement voter ID in the states is a solution to a non-issue. What ID laws have instead done is create a hostile environment at polling stations, where minority voters are challenged about the validity of their ID, while the bar for what constitutes as sufficient ID constantly changes.
We should all be apprehensive about the UK government’s Electoral Integrity Bill. With March’s proposed Police Crime and Sentencing Bill – which sought to further criminalise protests – not yet entirely dead, the government’s attempts to make it harder to vote cannot be overlooked. The Conservative government is desperately trying to suppress the cries of marginalised people, so they can cling to power without accountability. Don’t let them.