The upcoming local elections in England will, according to Dr Jess Garland, the Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society, witness ‘the biggest change to our elections for a generation’. Garland was referring to the forthcoming introduction of mandatory identification checks at polling stations for citizens to exercise their democratic right to cast their ballot. These measures will be active for the first time for the 2023 local elections.
The policy has proved to be hugely controversial, and opinion is divided. The government has previously remarked that ‘we cannot be complacent’ in securing the healthy operation of the UK’s democratic process.
The Electoral Commission has suggested that a form of voter ID should be compulsory in Britain since 2014. The government took on board their recommendations, piloting schemes in 2018 and 2019 and deemed them an overwhelming success. Supporters of the policy also point out that requirements to present photographic identification at polling stations are common in democracies in Europe and the rest of the world.
Recent polling by YouGov suggests the policy is popular with voters too. Sixty-three per cent of those polled supported the initiative, and just twenty-eight per cent opposed. Amongst 2019 Tory voters, eight in ten supported the move.
However, there has been fierce disapproval of requiring voter identification for the first time in British elections, deemed ‘discriminatory’ and ‘unnecessary’ by critics. The Electoral Commission admitted that large sections of the British population could be disenfranchised once the measure is enacted on 4 May, including disabled people, traveller communities and the elderly.
The government implemented a scheme that offered those without acceptable forms of identification to apply for a Voter Authority Certificate. The scheme closed several days ago, with 85,689 applications put forward. This is just 4.3 per cent of those without acceptable forms of identification, with approximately two million people in the UK lacking the appropriate identification to vote in future elections.
This is a huge marginalisation of a large section of the British electorate. Dr Ben Stanford puts this down to the policy being ‘rushed through with very tight deadlines’, as public campaigns to inform voters of the new initiative have not been wholly successful. Polling last month revealed one in four British voters did not even know they needed identification to cast their ballot in the upcoming elections.
There has been growing concern around the implications of turning voters away on polling day who fail to provide the correct identification. Anoosh Chakelian from the New Statesman revealed that police forces have been put on alert to respond to potential abuse towards staff at polling stations as a result of voters being ‘confused’ and ‘frustrated’. This is a worrying prospect as thousands could be refused entry into polling stations. In previous elections, giving a name and address was sufficient for Britons to exercise their democratic right to vote. Now, as Paul Waugh suggests, staff will not just ‘tick off names’ but will be transformed into ‘show me your papers’ officers.
Critics have suggested the risks of the policy ‘far outweighs’ the benefits. The government’s main argument for implementing the policy is that it will end voting fraud. Yet there were just seven cases of alleged voting fraud in 2022. For Marian Cullen, the disenfranchising of approximately two million people from the democratic process is entirely disproportionate and unjust. She describes it as a ‘blatant attempt at voter suppression’. Cullen has decided to quit working at a polling station after forty years as a result of the ‘Trumpian measure’.
The low take-up of the Voter Authority Certificate should not surprise ministers. The government concluded in October 2022 that the majority of the two million lacking acceptable identification would ‘probably or definitely not apply for the Voter Authority Certificate’. By the government’s own admission, then, the policy does not help to improve citizens’ participation in the democratic process. Indeed, it actively disenfranchises many who do not hold acceptable identification and have been unable to gain access to adequate documentation with good time.
As Anita Mureithi explained, any national government should encourage their population to participate in the democratic process, making it easier, not harder to vote. Rishi Sunak’s voter identification policy only adds an extra layer of difficulty to that process.
Share This Post On
Leave a comment
You need to login to leave a comment. Log-in