The recently passed Elections Bill means voters must now have to provide photo ID to vote, including in today’s local elections.
The government says this policy is necessary for “stamping out the potential for voter fraud to take place and giving electors the confidence that their vote is theirs and theirs alone”.
Let’s take these two points in turn.
First on voter fraud. It’s true that this policy will make it harder for people seeking to impersonate others to commit electoral fraud.
But it’s also true that such crimes are extremely rare. According to the Electoral Commission, since 2018 there have been nine convictions and six police cautions issued for electoral fraud. Just one person was convicted of voter personation at the 2019 general election.
Second, the policy is being framed as a way to build trust in our electoral system. But research shows that there is already broad trust in our electoral processes with 85 per cent of people thinking voting in a polling station is safe from fraud or abuse.
Of those who are not confident that our elections are well run, fraud/corruption (37 per cent) did not even rank in the top three most popular reasons; TV/press coverage being biased/badly presented, campaigning being based on incorrect information/made untrue claims, and the voting system being outdated/wanting a different voting system were all more of a concern.
It’s also the case that people see a problem with other aspects of our elections: 66 per cent say low voter turnout at elections is a problem and 34 per cent say barriers to democratic participation for minority ethnic groups is a problem.
Voter ID isn’t the solution
Here lies the danger. The Voter ID policy does not address these problems. Instead it will reduce turnout and further exclude marginalised groups from the political process. It provides another barrier to democracy for people already excluded from political participation.
Recent Demos polling found that 3 per cent of the public do not have appropriate ID and a further 1 per cent don’t know if they do or not. This means approximately 1.8 million adults will be unable to vote today. Just 60,000 people without ID applied for a Voter Authority Certificate, which can used to vote in person in some elections.
And this disenfranchisement is not equal across demographic groups. Our polling shows that 8 per cent of people in the UK from lower socio-economic backgrounds (defined as people from social grades D and E) don’t have an appropriate ID. Assuming this figure holds for England, that’s around 900k people over the age of 18 who won’t have their views reflected in a vote in the local elections.
Unfortunately we may never truly know how many people will be denied a vote today. Official data won’t count those who simply don’t attempt to vote because they know they don’t have appropriate ID, or those stopped from entering polling stations.
Who cares about local elections?
Local elections already lack importance according to the public. According to our polling, fewer people think that local elections are important, compared to national elections.
However, this figure (70 per cent) is still consistently higher than turnout at local elections, which is consistently low. In the English local elections in 2021 just 36 per cent of the electorate voted compared to 67 per cent at the last general election. People from lower socio-economic and ethnic minority backgrounds are significantly less likely to register and vote. Lower turnouts reduce legitimacy. If so many people think voting in local elections is important, but don’t actually vote, attention should turn to the barriers they face to engaging in the democratic process. Voter ID does nothing to that effect.
And there are significant demographic differences. People from lower socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minority backgrounds are 14 and 19 percentage points less likely to think voting in local elections is important compared to people from higher socio-economic backgrounds and White people. Less than half (49 per cent) of Black people think they’re important.
Of people who don’t have Voter ID, 39 per cent think voting in local elections is important and 32 per cent think it is not important. So not only has the government’s policy disenfranchised those it should be drawing into democratic processes, it’s also pushing away people who do see the importance of voting.
Trust in devolution?
Zooming out slightly, this is all situated in wider evidence that people are losing faith in our democratic system. Just 16 per cent of people think MPs understand the needs of their local area and Demos focus groups have found serious levels of mistrust in politicians, across all levels. Yet just 42 per cent of people trust local government.
There is general agreement that devolution is a good thing. But there’s less talk about the lack of participation at the local level. Without participation the legitimacy of devolution has to be questioned. It’s for that reason we need ‘double devolution’ – we need to empower local people to make change in their communities, to provide local scrutiny and accountability and to increase trust and legitimacy.
The new Voter ID policy does nothing to solve any of these issues. It doesn’t improve turnout, it doesn’t improve political engagement, it doesn’t improve legitimacy. It does the opposite.
Voter ID is anti-participation and anti-legitimate devolution. Disenfranchising marginalised people further and excluding them from democracy in the name of voter integrity is a disproportionate response to a non-existent problem.