Nestled among a raft of Ukip-esque anti-immigration policies in the Tory manifesto is a plan to force people to show identification when they vote. No passport, no driving licence? No vote. The Tories say this would stop electoral fraud, but statistics suggest they’re interested in making it harder for people to vote.
According to data from the government’s own report of the 51.4m votes cast in all elections in 2015, there were a mere 130 allegations of voting fraud in 2015. That amounts to 0.00025% of votes. Now, these figures can’t be taken as exact; some of the allegations might be untrue, some go unnoticed. And as the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) pointed out, the report largely relies on “anecdotes and self-professed claims to have witnessed (or even just heard about) electoral fraud”. But even when taking all of this into account, you’d be hard pressed to make the case that voter fraud is in any way a significant problem in the UK.
What this means is the Conservatives have decided that if they win on 8 June, they’ll enshrine voter ID in law to deal with a problem that’s far from widespread. What’s more, the ERS says that voter ID wouldn’t stop vote-buying or coercion, even if it were a major problem. What it will do is make it more difficult for everyone else to vote. In fact, the Electoral Commission estimated that 3.5 million voters (7.5% of the electorate) would have no acceptable piece of photo ID – never mind the people who forget their ID or lose it just before an election.
Why, then, have the Tories inked this policy into their manifesto? There are two explanations, neither of which looks particularly good for the Conservatives. One is that they simply don’t care about making our democracy more democratic; the other that they’re cynically finding ways to actively undermine the Labour vote.
It’s likely that this change would mean that lower-income voters would find it more difficult to vote. As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush observed, there’s concrete evidence for this within the UK: Northern Ireland already requires voter ID, and when the process was trialled there, it was found that poorer people were less likely to have the necessary identification, so free voter ID cards were introduced. The Tories have no plans to do the same in the rest of the UK. Voter ID wouldn’t make our democracy more secure; it would make it less accessible.
In the US 31 states now enforce voter ID laws, and these have had a disproportionate impact on marginalised groups. The American Civil Liberties Union found even if free voter ID were offered, hidden costs would act as obstacles for people on low incomes. Similarly, a 2014 report by the US Government Accountability Office showed a disproportionate impact on black and younger voters. In the UK we already have a democratic deficit among these groups – people who tend to be (but are not exclusively) Labour voters.
People of colour who are on the electoral roll are as likely to vote as their white counterparts. But according to the 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study study, 78% of minority ethnic people, and only 59% of Black Africans, were registered to vote – in comparison to 90% of white people. For young people, the picture is even worse, youth turnout dropped between 1992 and 2005. It’s now about 40%.
This should be set against a broader picture of a concerted effort by the Conservatives to reduce the number of traditional Labour voters on the electoral register. In 2014 they ended the system where the “head of a household” could register all eligible voters; this meant, for example, students would no longer be automatically registered at their home address.
The Tories have also slashed short money, used to help fund opposition parties, and introduced the Lobbying Act that gagged NGOs, charities and trade unions, but left the Tories’ corporate supporters largely untouched.
The Tories will say that voter ID is about making democracy more robust. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s hard to see how this is anything but an attempt to further reduce turnout, and to undermine Labour.