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Vast Majority of Those Turned Away Over Voter ID in Local Elections Were ‘Non-White’ According to Polling Station Observers

The figure has surged compared to last year’s local elections, raising concerns over discrimination, the UK’s leading election monitoring group has warned

Photo: Paul Hennell/Alamy Live News

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Seven in ten voters turned away due to issues with photo ID during this month’s local and police commissioner elections in England appeared to not be white, according to the first major analysis of the May 2nd voting process. 

That compares to just a quarter of the population in England and Wales who are not white, according to the latest 2021 census. The research by the non-partisan group Democracy Volunteers suggests that people from ethnic minorities are far more likely to have faced issues with the voter ID rules – posing serious risks of discrimination in the imminent General Election on July 4th. 

One in fifty voters – 2.1% of those observed – overall were turned away for lack of ID, mostly in urban areas, the report out today (May 23rd) has found. 

The demographic differences were stark, according to the 150 volunteers who observed 725 polling stations on May 2. Fifteen percent of those excluded were ‘white passing’ men, 26% were ‘non-white passing’ men, 15% were ‘white passing’ women, and 44% ‘non-white passing’ women.

That comes to over two-thirds of those turned away appearing to be from ethnic minority backgrounds, and is a significant rise from the 55% in last May’s elections. While that could partly be due to London having mayoral elections this year, the figure is “much higher than the population and needs to be addressed,” Democracy Volunteers warned. 

In contrast, observers noted 12 voters were allowed to vote without showing ID; most of whom were ‘white passing’.

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Via Democracy Volunteers

The 2.1% figure of voters observed being turned away is nearly double what Democracy Volunteers observed in the 2023 local elections, where 1.2% of voters were turned away for not bringing the appropriate identification.

Director Dr John Ault described it as a “worrying rise” in the numbers of those being prevented from voting because of the new rules around having show photo ID. 

The report on the May 2024 local election calls for the next Government to extend the list of acceptable forms of photo ID, to ensure ID checks are conducted at the presiding officer’s desk rather than by ‘bouncers’ at the door of the polling station, and to consider setting up a system of “attestation”, where a reigstered voter can legally vouch for the identity of someone who lacks ID.

The report also found that 24% of polling stations lacked adequate privacy for ID checks, and a similar number of polling stations had issues with so-called ‘family voting’, where family members enter a voting booth together and collude or direct the family’s voting intentions as a bloc.

Harry Bush, deputy director of Democracy Volunteers, said: “A lot of [alarm] bells are ringing” about ID checks.

“At a large number of polling stations, ID was being used as a way to get access, but wasn’t properly checked at the desk. That’s worrying. The whole point of an ID check is to prevent personation…It defeats the point of having an ID check in the first place.

“ID checks are not being conducted in an equal way,” he added, calling for extra training for staff. “Their role has changed significantly to become [that] of a bouncer or border agent,” he said. 

In some cases, staff let people vote without proper checks if they recognised or were friends with them, which is against the rules. 

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John Ault, director of the group, told Byline Times: “A big part of what we do is speaking truth to power… 2.1% of voters being turned away is 2.1% more than who should be turned away.”

Asked about the risks at the July 4th General Election, he said: “I think we’ll see more people turned away…People forget that Scotland has only had one parliamentary by-election where voter ID is required. Voters in Scotland may be completely unaware.” The voter ID rules are from Westminster legislation, and aren’t used for Scottish locals or Holyrood elections. But everyone in the UK will need ID for the General Election.  

Harry Busz added: “An attestation system could really help break the back of the problem. It won’t be in place before the General Election. So it’s about education.” 

Voters who don’t speak English well are more likely to struggle with the rules, he said. But many could also be hit by the fact that names on ID and the electoral roll must match.

“If you’ve changed your name recently, you need to re-register with your correct name. We need more detail in the messaging than just ‘register’,” he said. 

Update: This piece has been amended to correct a typo – it originally said the election was June 4th. It is of course July 4th.

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