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Are the new voter ID requirements a step away from democracy?

The local elections that have just taken place in the UK will be the last elections where voters will not need to present a photographic ID to vote. This is due to the passing of the Elections Bill that will adopt the Northern Ireland voter ID requirement into UK law. This law aims to update security protections and eliminate fraud. The Government has declared that this will help preserve the integrity of the electoral system. Still, many have risen in opposition and claim that it is a tactical move to undermine democracy. This is due to concerns that it will make it harder for those from minorities to vote. 


 


The policy promises that everyone eligible to vote will still have this opportunity, but this vague promise is naïve and shows a lack of understanding of the country’s electorate. Voter turnout in local elections is never high, with the 2022 local elections seeing some abysmally low voting numbers. This is due to various reasons, from voters not remembering the day of the election to not seeing local elections as necessary. Even the slightest changes to how elections are run can significantly impact voter turnout. An excellent example of this is the changing of polling station locations. Many people have voted in the same polling station for years and might not realise that there has been a change in the area. Local candidates, therefore, have to work very hard if there has been a change in the polling station location to make sure that voters do not head to the previous area and possibly miss out on voting. 


 


So we know that the Election Bill aims to prevent in-person voter fraud. But have our elections seen cases of voter fraud on a scale to warrant a Bill such as this one? The 2019 General Election saw just one voter fraud conviction. This is not to say that it doesn’t happen more frequently, but it suggests that there is insufficient evidence to push through such a bill. But why would the Government exaggerate a problem that doesn’t seem to exist? The possible answer to this is quite sinister – trying to suppress the votes of those already disadvantaged to sway the public vote in one direction. The Labour party have called it a ‘dirty election tactic’ whilst Labour MP Nick Smith said the laws intend to ‘lower voter turnout’.


 


The critical issue with this Bill is that not everyone has a physical copy of their ID. Government findings showed that 91% of the population holds the date and recognisable photo IDs. 8% of unemployed people do not have any form of ID. To help this, the Government will introduce a ‘Voter Card’, but a Government survey reported that 56% of respondents would be unlikely or very unlikely to apply. Of course, the Government would make efforts to highlight the benefits and importance of getting such a card. Still, it is unrealistic to expect that a more significant percentage of the electorate will make an effort to acquire one.  


 


This comes from similar laws in the United States, where 2021 saw 19 US states enacting 34 voting laws 2021, which many have called out as being designed for voter suppression. Voter ID cards can be costly to produce. If the responsibility to finance this falls on the voter, this can deter a number of the electorate from acquiring a card and voting. Furthermore, the Voter ID card could be lost or stolen before an election, preventing the voter from voting. Many argue that voter fraud, the reason for introducing voter ID laws, is very rare in the United States. This issue has been exaggerated to allow for these voting barriers to be introduced. Voter ID laws have also been in place in Northern Ireland since 2003 when an electoral identity card is used. The card is free to get and does not expire, and the picture just has to be an accurate resemblance of the cardholder.


 


So who will this law affect? There might be a decrease in young voter turnout, as student cards and railcards will not suffice, a decision that seems unfair given that older person’s bus passes will. Research has shown that older age groups are more likely to vote Conservative. In 2019 over 60% of over-65s voted for them. This has been a problem that the Labour opposition has had to work hard to change. 


 


Why has the Government put this into law? There is no doubt that the political leanings of young people pose a threat to our current Government. The influx of a new voting generation could cause a swing from the right-wing parties to the left, something that the Government is increasingly worried about. Labour hold the support of 38% of persons under 29 and just 9% of those over 70. Although Labour suffered a monumental defeat in 2019, the influx of new voters eligible to vote for the first time gave way to a degree of optimism. This new law puts a dampener on this and will make Labour’s need to regain votes from the older generations even more critical. 


 


As someone passionate about getting young people to vote and get involved with politics, this new Bill isolates a chunk of voters and might lead to decreased voter turnout in the next general election. It is concerning to see how the Government does not encourage voter participation and instead seeks to hinder it. Voting is one of the best ways to make our voices heard on a national level and send a message to our Government. The recent local elections on May 5th saw the Conservatives lose almost 500 seats. Although Labour did not make as large again as they were hoping, this created fears for the Conservatives that they might lose power at the next General Election. 


 


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