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Tue 20 October 2020
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With allegations of black voter suppression re-emerging in the US, Stephen Delahunty looks at similar attempts to disenfranchise millions of voters in the UK

Civil rights groups have warned that the Government is planning to force through the introduction of voter ID cards under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic in a “Trumpian” attempt to disenfranchise millions of voters.

The Electoral Reform Society is leading a coalition of groups that are concerned with how the government will use personal data after the failure of several other digital projects. They warn that ID card proposals will disproportionately hit older voters, people of colour, and those on low-incomes while importing US-style voter suppression to the UK.

The Government’s mandatory Voter ID plans are blatantly discriminatory, pathing the way for voter suppression. If these plans go ahead, we could see Black and Ethnic Minority communities locked out of democracy.

Cat Smith MP, Labour shadow minister for voter engagement

The move also comes at a time when the Government’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings has mooted plans for digital ‘ID cards’ that combine a number of concerns around representation, privacy and transparency.


The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledged to introduce voter ID in primary legislation over the course of this parliament. However, a national ID cards system was first unsuccessfully promoted by the Labour Government in 2006, until the proposal collapsed in the face of campaigning from civil rights group Liberty and others. 

By the time the Identity Cards Act 2006 was scrapped in 2010, the cost to the public purse was already £4.6 billion. Additional research by the London School of Economics estimated that the true overall cost of the scheme would have been in the range of £10.6 to £19 billion over ten years.

Gracie Bradley, Liberty’s policy and campaigns manager, explained that the difference with this version of the plans is that it is likely to be even more intrusive, insecure and discriminatory than last time round, while making it harder for some people to access essential services.

“The Government has given us plenty of reasons to be wary of its digital projects. Recent months have seen backtracks over the planned contract tracing app and exams algorithm, and only last year the Home Office had to apologise to EU nationals and Windrush citizens in the space of a week for data breaches.”

Bradley warned that as national ID systems often rely on huge central databases, interactions between the state and the public could be recorded. The data could also be accessed by a range of Government agencies or even private corporations, potentially in combination with other surveillance technologies like facial recognition.

Jessica Metheringham, chair of Unlock Democracy highlighted how only two people were found to have committed in-person electoral fraud, from a total of 139 cases of possible voting fraud reported to the police in 2019. In comparison, the Electoral Commission has fined political campaigns, such as Vote Leave, tens of thousands of pounds for breaching electoral legislation.

Metheringham acknowledged the electoral system needed reform but the Government had its priorities wrong. “This scheme is the equivalent of taking out a tap because it might drip, while ignoring both leaking pipes and the lack of water pressure. The effect of the Government focusing on voter ID is that much more widespread electoral fraud – bribery, dark money in politics, and campaigns spending above the threshold – will go unchecked.”

Over sixties membership organisation Silver Voices, and LGBT rights charity Stonewall also have concerns about how the plans will impact their beneficiaries.

Director at Silver Voices, Dennis Read, said he was seriously concerned that this measure is being rammed through under cover of the pandemic as up to two million older people do not possess voter ID. “We fear this is a ‘Trumpian’ manoeuvre to limit voting by those who are not natural Government supporters ie the most deprived members of communities, including senior citizens in poverty.”

Josh Bradlow, policy manager at Stonewall, added: “LGBT people – particularly those who are working-class, older, disabled, and people of colour – are more likely than the general population to live in poverty or experience homelessness, which can create significant obstacles to obtaining photo ID. Many trans and non-binary people also may not have ID matching their gender.”

Dr Shazad Amin, chief executive at Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND), explained that Muslim and BAME communities are  overwhelmingly represented in the approximately 3.5 million citizens who do not have access to a photo ID, and the 11 million citizens who do not have a passport or driving licence.

“Thus, plans to enforce voter ID requirements can only further disenfranchise BAME citizens from our democracy and further entrench the hostile environment that continues to cause untold suffering across the country,” said Amin.

Advocacy group Hope Not Hate simply described mandatory voter ID as “a cure that is worse than the sickness.” In response, the Government said it takes its Public Sector Equality Duty extremely seriously and is consulting with local authorities and a range of organisations on the plans.


Ministers were Misled

A series of Freedom of Information requests made by the Labour party in July revealed that ministers misled the House of Commons over how mandatory voter ID could impact BAME voters. Ministers repeatedly claimed that evidence shows mandatory voter ID has no impact on any particular demographic group. But Labour revealed that the Government does not hold data on possession of ID by ethnicity, throwing doubt on ministers’ claims.

According to actual Government data, 76% of white people had a driving licence (the highest percentage out of all ethnic groups), while black people were the least likely out of all ethnic groups to have a driving licence (52%).

Rather than pulling up the drawbridge to large groups of voters, ministers should deal with bringing in the nine million people who are missing from the electoral register, and the dangerous loopholes in our analogue-age election laws.

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

Cat Smith MP, the shadow minister for voter engagement, said: “The Government’s mandatory Voter ID plans are blatantly discriminatory, pathing the way for voter suppression. If these plans go ahead, we could see Black and Ethnic Minority communities locked out of democracy.”

“We saw with the Windrush scandal how some communities struggle to provide official documentation. Yet the Government continues to plough on with voter ID plans, turning a blind eye how this could disenfranchise ethnic minorities.”


Legal Challenge to Government Pilots

Tessa Gregory is a partner at law firm Leigh Day, it is currently representing Neil Coughlan, a resident of Braintree who is challenging the Government’s pilots of voter ID requirements in local elections on the grounds that the minister acted outside of her legal powers. 

“The Court of Appeal recently dismissed our appeal, but in doing so noted that the arguments were finely balanced. We have submitted an application for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court and we are awaiting a decision,” she explained.

Coughlan, a 66-year-old retired nurse, said he brought the case because there were people in his community during the 2019 pilot that couldn’t vote. “It makes it harder for people who are already disadvantaged economically. I was angry because now they’re going to be disadvantaged politically as well.” He said it was the people who need representation the most that are going to be left behind.

Gregory said that voter ID requirements lead invariably to voter suppression, and the Electoral Commission’s evaluation of its previous two pilots suggests that in total hundreds of voters were turned away and that a disproportionate number of those denied the vote were Black and Ethnic Minority voters.

“These pilots are the precursor to and will form the evidence base for the Government’s wider plans to introduce voter ID in all elections in 2021. That is why we regard this legal challenge as being of public importance and raising issues of fundamental constitutional importance.”

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “Rather than pulling up the drawbridge to large groups of voters, ministers should deal with bringing in the nine million people who are missing from the electoral register, and the dangerous loopholes in our analogue-age election laws.” 

Hughes said ministers should be focused on reforming Westminster’s warped voting system or unelected House of Lords. He added; “When it comes to Britain’s democratic crisis, this isn’t just fiddling while Rome burns – it’s pouring petrol on the flames. It’s vital that ministers think again before driving another wedge into our already-unequal politics.” 

The Cabinet Office said that any voter who does not have an approved form of ID will be able to apply, free of charge, for an electoral ID from their local authority. 

“Showing ID to vote is a reasonable way to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud in our current system and strengthen its integrity. There is a wealth of evidence to show that voter ID does not impact voter turnout – it’s been operating in Northern Ireland, with ease, for decades and the overwhelming majority of people cast their vote successfully in our pilots,” added a spokesperson.


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