We can't let the Tories take lessons from the US on using voter ID to distort democracy

3.5 million electors – that’s 7.5 per cent of the electorate – do not have photo ID. 

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At a time when Brexit dominates political discussion and our attention is focused on the future of the UK’s economic relationship with the EU, it is important to remember that there is still plenty going on elsewhere in British politics.

Behind the scenes and attempting to avoid attention from media pundits, the Conservatives are quietly planning one of the most dramatic changes to our voting system ever. This May, the Government are piloting mandatory voter ID in some areas across the UK for the local government elections.

For the first time, voters in Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking will be required to show identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, to cast their vote at the polling station. Those without the necessary ID will be turned away. Moreover, before a single pilot has taken place, the Tories have already pledged to roll-out voter ID nationwide at the next general election.

Let’s be clear, electoral fraud is a serious crime and it is vital that the police have the resources they need to bring about prosecution. However, the proposals outlined by the government are clearly disproportionate.

Last year there were 28 allegations of impersonation - the type of fraud that voter ID is designed to tackle – out of 45 million votes cast. That is one allegation for every 1.6 million votes cast. Of these 28 allegations, one case resulted in a conviction. Trust in our democratic system is vital, which is why strategies to tackle fraud should be based on facts.

Manipulating people’s concerns about voter fraud in order to build support for repressive voter ID laws is a tactic too often used by right-wing politicians in the US. In 2008, Georgia and Indiana became the first US states to introduce voter ID, on the grounds of exaggerated claims of voter fraud. There are now 13 US states that have adopted restrictive voter ID laws (and six states have strict photo ID requirements).

Research by the Brennan Centre indicates that strict voter ID requirements in the United States are a deliberate and well established method of conservative US states to depress voter turnout amongst minority groups. According to a recent report by Professor Hajnal from the University of California San Diego, strict identification laws caused voter turnout in US general election to drop by 5 per cent among individuals from minority groups.

During the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump revived the false claim of widespread voter fraud when he claimed that that millions of people had voted illegally which swayed the result of the popular vote in Hillary Clinton’s favour. Although claims of election “rigging” and fraudulent voting have been debunked in-depth afterwards, this kind of dangerous rhetoric undermines the legitimacy of elections and our democracy.

We cannot allow this Conservative Government to take lessons from the US Republican Party and follow a similar path of voter suppression. The Electoral Commission has warned that 3.5 million electors – that’s 7.5 per cent of the electorate – do not have photo ID.

There is also a significant financial barrier to obtaining ID. Many people cannot afford a passport, let alone a holiday abroad. A recent study found that 7 million people in the UK who have not been on a family holiday in the past ten years. Alongside this fact, the Government have pushed through unpopular proposals to increase the cost of adult passports from £72.50 to a whopping £85.

Many across the third sector share our concern about voter ID. This week an unprecedented coalition of leading charities, civil society groups and academics wrote to Chloe Smith MP, Minister for the Constitution, calling on the government to urgently reconsider the decision to enforce voter ID at the local elections in May. The coalition – including charities such as Age UK, the National Union of Students, Operation Black Vote, the Salvation Army and Stonewall – argue that voter ID reforms present a significant barrier to democratic engagement; and it could disadvantage young people, older people, disabled, transgender, BAME communities and the homeless.

In this letter, the coalition said that they were concerned that local authorities involved have failed to carry out adequate equality impact assessments of the pilots on protected individuals in their areas. They also drew attention to the low levels of public awareness of the pilots and proposed reforms.

The Labour Party believes democracy is for everyone. We want everyone's voice to be heard, no matter someone's background. And, as we mark 100 years of women over 30 achieving the right to vote, we should challenge ourselves to build on their democratic achievements and resist the efforts of those who would turn back the clock.

Cat Smith is Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood