This week’s publication of the Elections Bill has given pressure groups and others a fresh opportunity to complain about what they see as the latest manifestation of this government’s illiberalism: a requirement for people to produce photo ID when they go to vote. Forgive me, but I fail to see what is so terrible, so undemocratic, about that.
The arguments go like this. First of all, opponents say, any change is unnecessary, as the UK simply doesn’t have a problem with voter fraud – with impersonation, say, or multiple voting. Trust in the UK electoral process is high and the instances of fraud are infinitesimal
compared with the numbers of votes cast. There was once a problem in Northern Ireland – which is why mandatory photo ID was introduced there – but this is an exception. The estimated cost, at £20m per election, could be better spent trying to encourage political engagement.
Second, with the government itself acknowledging that around two million people lack any current recognisable photo ID, any change could disenfranchise several million voters. The Electoral Reform Society, which has spearheaded objections to the proposed change, estimates that as many as 3.5 million people could be excluded, with almost half of those it surveyed without photo ID saying they would be unlikely or very unlikely to apply for the free electoral card the government has promised.
The ERS further argues that those disenfranchised would be disproportionately from poor, minority or otherwise disadvantaged groups. So not only would this part of the electorate be discriminated against, but the vote could be skewed in favour of the better off (that is, they assume, in favour of the Tories). This cause has been taken up enthusiastically by the Labour party, with Cat Smith, the shadow secretary of state for young people and democracy, claiming that the government is ‘trying to change the rules and rig our democracy in their favour’.
And now a new accusation has sprung up, co-opted (like many wrong-headed ideas) from a hazy idea of something that is happening on the other side of the Atlantic. That the Bill is ‘voter suppression’, as currently observed in the state of Georgia, where Republicans – stung by Democrat victories in the last Senate race – are legislating to make postal voting harder by, among other things, requiring applicants to include photo ID, not just a signature. But ‘voter suppression’ in America goes far beyond demanding photo ID for a postal vote – it is part of a whole package, which includes gerrymandering constituencies, not publicising voter registration, and making polling stations fewer and further between in black and poor areas.
This is not the only point on which the opponents of mandatory photo ID for UK voters need to be challenged. Their insistence that there is no need to fix what is not broken reflects enormous complacency on their part. There may have been very few prosecutions for voter fraud, but the conduct of some elections has left a lot to be desired. The 2014 mayoral election in Tower Hamlets – subsequently declared null and void – was famously described by a judge as an election that would have shamed a banana republic.
Lax controls on postal voting should be a particular cause for concern, but the very idea that someone can turn up at a polling station and cast a vote with no ID whatsoever would be unthinkable in most developed countries. Requiring photo ID seems an elementary and overdue precaution.
And how true is it really that several million people do not possess any form of photo ID – or would not, following a decent publicity campaign, be persuaded to obtain a free electoral card? All right, many people may not have either a passport or a driving licence, but many older people have bus passes, many disabled people have blue badges, and many young people have ID to access their student facilities or to show they are over-18. These are all forms of photo ID that the Elections Bill says will be accepted for the purpose of voting.
Which perhaps leaves what may be the real objection many people have with voting reform: that a requirement to show photo ID for any purpose, including to vote, is profoundly un-British and will inevitably mark the start of a very slippery slope towards compulsory national ID cards. The variety of documents that will be accepted for voting, as stipulated in the Election Bill, should give the lie to that.
But even if the Election Bill does not open up the ID question, perhaps it should. I used to oppose ID cards in the belief that they were indeed ‘un-British’, that there was no need for them and that they would simply invite fraud. And that spot-checks that appeared discriminatory could exacerbate community tensions.
But I have changed my mind, largely in response to two developments. One is the Windrush scandal, which – it seems to me – could have been avoided if the Windrush generation, or their children, had at some point had to obtain an ID card. Their undocumented status would have been apparent, and remedied, much sooner.
The second is the incompetence of successive governments in tracking who is actually in the country. The latest evidence of this is the huge disparity – of at least a million – between the number of EU citizens who were thought to have come to the UK and the number who have actually applied for ‘settled status’.
No wonder people in some parts of the country felt their local services were overstretched. The government, relying apparently on National Insurance records and the hopeless International Passenger Survey, simply had no clue. Is it so very wrong to require people accessing government services – or going to vote in a democratic election – to show proof of who they are?