SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: voter idFrom Free Voting to ‘Papers Please’: Experiences from England’s Experiment in US-Style ‘Voter Suppression’
In the latest in a series of damning testimonies from voters across England, Byline Times reveals how the new mandatory voter ID requirements have created confusion, frustration – and potentially a real risk of discrimination. Josiah Mortimer reports
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Dominique Calleja, a voter from Worthing, had an uncomfortable experience at the polling station last Thursday. “My passport was heavily scrutinised. I felt most uncomfortable…It’s not an appropriate use of a passport. It’s the only photographic evidence I have,” said Calleja. She wasn’t alone.
In a series of testimonies from voters across England, Byline Times reveals how the new mandatory voter ID requirements have created confusion, frustration – and potentially a real risk of discrimination.
The latest findings come after Byline Times spoke to more voters who were turned away under Britain’s new mandatory ID elections law last week than have been convicted of in-person voter fraud in nearly a decade.
While no official figures have yet been announced on the numbers turned away in last week’s mega-round of English elections, this newspaper surveyed around 150 people in England who had elections in their area. Of that relatively small number, six found themselves shut out of the democratic process due to the new voter ID requirements, while two refused to vote on principle.
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Many more however experienced less obvious difficulties, confusion and mishandling of the process at a local level, however.
Denis John Ward of South Hams found the polling staff confused about what constituted valid ID: “They would not accept my Devon County Council Bus Pass as photo ID…[but] it was actually listed as being acceptable on the back of my polling letter that they were holding.”
A similar issue arose in Redditch for Glen Theobald and his wife: “My wife doesn’t use our married name for passport or driving licence but she does on the electoral register. So, a couple of days before the poll it occurred to me that she might have problems. She took a marriage certificate, birth certificate and passport. It took some consultation to accept that she was eligible to vote.”
Theobald also shared an observation on potential discrimination: “We are older white middle class. I suspect it wouldn’t have been as easy were we younger and not white.” A voter in South Gloucestershire also shared a similar suspicion: “My 21-year-old daughter who came with me was asked at the door if she had ID. Like me she said “yes”. Unlike me, she was asked to show her ID to prove her identity once inside.”
Inconsistencies and Obstacles
In Tunbridge Wells, Keith Rowell reported witnessing an elderly woman unable to vote due to a lack of appropriate ID: “[She] brought her electric bill thinking that was sufficient to satisfy the ID check.” Ralph Pryke in Boston described a similar incident, where a voter did not return after being asked to retrieve his photo ID – an expired passport – citing the eight-mile journey.
However, inconsistencies in the application of the new requirement have also begun to emerge. One anonymous voter said: “I was asked if I had ID at the door, I said “yes”. [But] inside I was not asked to produce ID to prove I had it or indeed to prove my identity.”
Another voter raised concerns about the role of the ‘greeter’ outside the polling station. “She had no identification to tell us who she was. She did not introduce herself…She asked us if we had ID. I challenged her authority for asking and insisted she does it inside the polling station… She took us into the building which contained the station and asked to see our ID. I insisted she ask in the actual room where the voting was taking place.” Following a complaint, the presiding officer reportedly agreed the greeter should not have asked to see their ID.
Julian Harrow in Southampton reflected concerns that people turned away by greeters outside the polling station would not be counted – as indeed the Electoral Commission confirmed. “There appeared to be no method of counting people who were turned away by the greeter and never returned,” he said.
One democracy sector worker encountered a similar issue: “But once you were past them, you walked over to the table where ballot papers were issued where there was no ID check at all. I could easily have shown an ID at the door and then identified myself as a different person to get the ballot paper.”
The Impact on Voting: From Queue Times to Voter Turnout
Once inside the polling station, voters often faced scepticism or confusion among staff themselves. One voter shared his experience with his OAP Bus Pass: “Most of this [time] was finding my name on the list.” It poses the threat of queues in a much higher-turnout general election. Gar James in East Devon also said the process was “very slow”.
In Chelmsford, another anonymous voter recalled a confrontation with polling staff over their work ID: “The counters would not accept my work ID card even though it’s a medium security one. I had to get firm with them and threaten to make a scene. They let me vote because the queue was getting longer and grumbling.”
Many voters this newspaper spoke to struggled to get hold of ID in time for the election. Sheffield-based Alex Szabo-Haslam’s passport didn’t arrive in time. Sarah Mills in Bromsgrove had to be the ‘professional’ on a citizenship ID for an acquaintance as he had no passport or driving licence. “It only just arrived in time,” she said.
Polling station staff Byline Times spoke to reported that most of those turned away without ID did return. “We had to ask a total of 9 out of 184 registered voters to return with either no ID, or University ID. They all returned and we recorded this on the official form,” one poll clerk in Sheffield said.
A presiding officer, who needed to remain anonymous, said that eight people out of 11 over the day were turned away for lacking the “right” kind of ID in their polling station. Three did not return, and one returned with a bank statement.
The Sheffield clerk also expressed concerns over young voters, stating, “Of interest to me was the number of young people who thought they were automatically registered and weren’t. They should be…If we can issue NI numbers, why not.”
Reflecting on the Impact: A Changing Atmosphere
Several election watchers and staffers expressed their fears over turnout in last week’s locals. “I was told by the clerk it was the poorest turnout they had ever [seen],” Carol Grantley in Yorkshire’s East Riding said. Damian Evans in Rochdale reported that turnout appeared to be “a lot lower” than in previous local elections in his area. Several polling clerks and presiding officers echoed these sentiments, with one Sussex polling station chief putting local turnout at just 20%.
For many, the process simply left a nasty taste in the mouth. Simon Wyndham in Dudley said the “atmosphere felt different” at his polling station. “The use of ID turned it from a friendly lady ticking your name off a list into some sort of “papers please” inspection process.”
Ironic for a policy pushed through by Boris Johnson. The disgraced ex-PM once wrote that if he were ever asked “to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am when I have done nothing wrong…then I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded I produce it.”
Despite the challenges, this newspaper made at least a little impact before the election. Sasha in Coventry said: “I knew beforehand from Byline Times that I needed ID, so I came prepared.”
Were you affected by the voter ID legislation in the local elections? Did you witness something that needs highlighting? Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org