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13 October 2019

Are Boris Johnson’s VoterID proposals an attempt to disenfranchise Labour voters?

Johnson's proposals are better than Theresa May's - but they are also more expensive.

By Stephen Bush

There are three inevitabilities in life: death, taxes, and the Conservatives announcing plans to force people to provide ID in order to vote. The nominal cause is concerns about electoral fraud, though the party’s opponents fear that the plans are a thin pretext to make it more difficult for supporters of Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats to vote.

That was certainly true of the proposals put forward by Theresa May in 2017. There was no attempt to tackle postal vote fraud, the only area of British democracy where there is any real evidence of issues around electoral malpractice. Since the Conservative electoral interest is just as well-served by the continued use of postal ballots as that of the other major parties, her plans – and indeed the plans that have been kicking around the Tory party for much of the post-1997 period – had nothing to say about them.

The reality is that, outside of postal votes, which May’s proposals said nothing about, there was and is very little evidence of electoral fraud in the UK. There is very little detected vote fraud and unless someone is rigging votes in line with national swing for the thrill of the chase there is no evidence that there is a vast degree of undetected electoral fraud on the whole.

Given that the people who do not have photo ID tend to be poorer and/or more likely to be from an ethnic minority background, the effect of the proposals would have been to make it less likely for supporters of Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the rest to vote.

But the case against the proposals put forward by Boris Johnson, at least as they are described in the Telegraph today, is less clear. Why? Well, because unlike May’s proposals, they would have some serious and worthwhile attempts to tackle the genuine problems with postal votes that do exist.

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There are also measures to tackle the issue of disenfranchisement through introducing a free photographic ID, to be issued by local councils, at the cost of up to £20m at every election. This is obviously a big improvement on May’s proposals in that it would go some distance to resolving the issues around disenfranchisement – provided of course that it was rolled out in the correct way.

£20m is not very much money as far as government spending goes but given that it is entirely pointless it feels especially egregious. But it raises a tricky question: there’s a worthwhile plan here to tackle postal vote fraud and a £20m one to tackle the imagined problem of fake identification at polling stations. Why not simply tackle postal vote fraud and forget about the voter ID requirement?