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19 April 2023

Why opposition to voter ID is growing

But, with the local elections only weeks away, it may be too late to change.

By Rachel Wearmouth

At next month’s local elections, voters in England will be required to show photo identification to get their ballot paper and vote.

Those more likely to get turned away are the elderly, people on low incomes, who live in rented accommodation and black and minority ethnic voters. There are claims that the measures are aimed at replicating Republican-style voter suppression in America, and fears that polling stations could be overwhelmed on 4 May. The Local Government Association has called it the biggest change to in-person voting in 150 years.

This change was in the last Tory manifesto, justified on the basis that it would prevent voter fraud. But according to the Electoral Commission, since 2018 only 1,386 alleged cases of electoral fraud were reported to the police. These led to nine convictions and six police cautions.

An estimated 3.4 million people do not possess acceptable photo ID (passports, driving licences, older or disabled person’s bus passes or Oyster 60+ cards in London are accepted), and there are fewer forms of ID available to young people. People can register online for a free voter ID by the end of 25 April, but uptake has been low: just over 48,000 people have reportedly come forward in the past two months.

The Electoral Commission estimates that a quarter of people are still unaware they need photo ID to vote.

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The former minister David Davis has called for the restriction to be delayed. “If they do that,” he told Sky News yesterday, “at least it avoids the worst outcome which is thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people are prevented from voting and exercising their democratic right.”

Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the association of electoral administrators, has admitted there are “unanswered questions” about how voter ID will work. He told the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee on Monday that May’s poll will not be delivered to the standard “that everybody would want to achieve”.

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Elections staff were still doing training, Stanyon continued, but few were reporting that voter ID would be “a straightforward thing to deliver”. Furthermore, as Anoosh reported a couple of months ago, police are already on standby to deal with voter abuse of electoral staff.

Rishi Sunak has said the move will ensure a “high-integrity process”. That sounds great on paper but the scale of disruption on the day could be huge, and ploughing on with a scheme that seems likely to deny scores of people access to their democratic right, whatever the underlying political aims, does not seem wise. Especially given people are enduring the biggest fall in living standards on record, and when trust in the political system is chronically low. The government is opening itself to a major backlash.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.