Voter registration reform risks enfeebling UK democracy

We could follow the US into electing an illegitimate government.

I write these lines from the United States, where the public drama of the election campaign still has over three months to run. But the real election drama has been fought behind the scenes – and it may already have decided the next President. The UK should heed the lessons while we can.

For over a decade, the two main parties have fought a bitter partisan war over voter registration. At the risk of simplification, the Democrats have been trying to get voters on the ballot, especially among the groups most likely to vote for them, and the Republicans have been trying to keep them off. The Democrats did especially well among the 18 million or so new voters who registered between 2004 and 2008: an estimated two thirds of them chose Barack Obama. This year the Republicans are determined to prevent a repeat.

In 20 crucial swing states Republican governors and legislators have made strong efforts to keep voters off the ballot.  They have been marshalled by a well-organized lobby, the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the ultra-rich, ultra-conservative and ultra-secretive Koch brothers. Their prime targets are poor people, African-Americans, Hispanics, students and young people generally, and voters born outside the United States – all groups more likely to vote Democratic. One Republican legislator, Mike Tuzai of Pennsylvania, admitted openly that his party’s tough new voter identification laws were designed to deliver the state and its 20 electoral votes to Mitt Romney.

The Republicans have used four methods. One is to introduce new restrictions on volunteer organizations which conduct voter registration drives. The highly respected, non-partisan League of Women Voters has 70 years’ experience of registering new voters. The Michigan legislature decided that their volunteers required prior state training, although state training courses were non-existent.

Two crucial battleground states, Florida and Ohio, clamped down on early voting, especially on the Sunday before election day, long used by African-American churches to get their congregations to vote after attending services.

Five key states, again including Florida, introduced new measures to purge or exclude former felons (the tactic which delivered Florida – and the United States with it - to George W Bush in 2000).

However, the crucial Republican tactic has been to introduce stiff new demands for photo-identification for voters. As many as fifteen key states have done this. Their rationale is the prevention of voter fraud, although in reality this is extremely scarce.  George W Bush’s Justice Department hunted for cases from 2002 to 2007 and found only one to prosecute.

Republican measures target the 11 per cent of Americans who do not have the standard form of photo-ID, a driver’s licence. They tend to be young, or poor, or non-white, and to obtain alternative photo-ID they are often forced to travel to remote state offices with limited opening hours, and to pay large fees. The Republicans have also made it hard or impossible to use a student ID to vote. In Wisconsin they attached conditions to this which no Wisconsin college can meet. Texas bars the use of student ID for voter registration, but allows the use of a concealed-gun permit.

Some Republican states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, face legal challenges to parts of their measures, but the great majority are likely to stay in place in the run-up to the election. On election day itself, poor and non-white voters in Republican-held states will almost certainly find it harder to get to their voting stations than affluent white ones – a factor which helped George W Bush take the vital state of Ohio in 2004.

This month the Brennan Center for Justice produced a study of the likely impact of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the ten states concerned. It confirmed that poor and non-white voters were less likely to hold photo-ID than the general population, and revealed that 1.2 million eligible black voters and 500,000 Hispanic voters lived more than 10 miles away from their nearest full-time ID issuing office. It also found poor people likely to be deterred by charges of up to $25 for a birth certificate or a marriage license. It noted that the ten states concerned provide 127 votes towards the 270 needed to win the Presidency and concluded “the ability of eligible citizens without photo ID to obtain one could have a major influence on the outcome of the 2012 election.”

To put it more bluntly, the Republicans could win the election and introduce a fiercely partisan programme afterwards by denying millions of potential victims of that programme their right to vote against it. No friend of the US could think that a good outcome. These are the methods of Vladimir Putin, not the leader of the free world.

However, we in Britain have no right to lecture the Americans about electoral process and voter registration. The Parliamentary boundary changes would remove 20 non-Conservative seats before a single vote is cast, and changes in the powers of returning officers have led to the disqualification of thousands of votes on election night. However, the greatest worry is that our next general election could see additional millions of voters excluded from the already incomplete register. This would not be the result of partisan manoeuvring, but the unintended consequence of the government’s introduction of individual voter registration.

The House of Commons select committee studied this issue in depth last year. We received powerful evidence about the extent of under-registration not least from the impartial Election Commission and the Association of Returning Officers, who said up to a third of electors could be deregistered. Other authorities believe that as many as six million eligible voters may not be registered, rather than the 3.5 million normally cited. The non-registered are most commonly poorer people, especially the unemployed and those on the minimum wage, inner-city residents, especially in rented housing, and people from minority ethnic or language communities.

Individual registration could make this problem even worse and the select committee recommended a range of changes to prevent this, including a penalty for non-registration combined with a major public information and outreach effort directed at the groups least likely to register. We have the opportunity to get this right since the Bill is still before Parliament.

Without such measures, our country could follow the US into electing an illegitimate government from an unrepresentative democracy.

Graham Allen is Labour MP for Nottingham North.

David Cameron walks with his wife Samantha as he leaves a polling station in London on May 3, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Graham Allen is Labour MP for Nottingham North.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder