The right to vote is the cornerstone of a democracy. That’s why plans to introduce the need for voters to provide photo ID in future elections have sparked controversy.
Tens of thousands of people backed calls to scrap the Elections Bill proposals, while MPs warned a voter ID requirement could breach people’s human rights.
Around 3.5 million registered voters in the UK do not have photo ID, according to the Electoral Commission. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Hands Off Our Vote campaign showed the plans will hit the North of England hardest – including a number of marginal seats – where one in 14 people don’t have a form of acceptable ID, compared to one in 100 Londoners.
Boris Johnson denied accusations that the move would put off young voters who were less likely to vote against the ruling Conservative Party. He said: “What we want to do is protect democracy, the transparency and the integrity of the electoral process.”
Here’s everything you need to know.
What are the plans for voter ID?
Under new plans revealed in Spring 2021, all voters will be required to show photo ID to cast their vote in general elections starting in 2023.
Voters will be able to use a driving licence or passport – the two most common forms of photo ID – in new rules to be introduced as part of the forthcoming Elections Bill. People can also show concession travel passes, blue badge parking permits and cards from the proof of age standards scheme – many of which are costly and difficult to obtain – under the plans.
The government has said a scheme is being put in place for a free voter card, to be provided by local authorities to people who don’t have ID.
But around 42 per cent of people who don’t already have ID would be reluctant to sign up for a voter card, according to Cabinet Office research.
What are the current rules?
There is currently no need to show photo ID at polling stations to cast your vote provided you have registered to vote in the election.
All you need to do is confirm your full name and address – or show your polling card, though this is optional – to cast your vote.
Photo ID is also not required for a postal vote or voting via proxy. People who are homeless, people in custody who have not yet been convicted of an offence and patients in mental hospitals can all vote by giving a proxy address.
Anyone aged over 18 can vote in a general election while 16 year-olds in Scotland and Wales can vote in their respective local and national elections – not long after being able to apply for a provisional photo driving licence at 15 years and nine months.
Why does the government want to bring in voter ID?
The government said the legislation will reduce the potential for voter fraud in the UK. It claimed “anecdotal” evidence of voters impersonating other people at polling stations are “frequent”.
Ministers believe that forcing voters to show photo ID to back up the name and address on their polling card will prevent people voting fraudulently under someone else’s name.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said voter ID has been used “with ease for decades” in Northern Ireland, where the photo identification requirement was introduced in 2003, and has “proven to be effective at tackling fraud and improving voter confidence”.
“Stealing someone’s vote is stealing their voice,” they added. “Fraud in our elections is something we cannot allow room for, so we are stamping out potential for it to take place by requiring photographic identification.”
How much voter fraud is there?
Voter fraud is very rare in UK general elections.
More than 47 million people voted in the last general election in 2019 and there were 595 reports of voter fraud. Of these reports, only four led to a conviction and two individuals were given a police caution, according to the Electoral Commission.
That means there is a conviction for fraudulent voting for every 23.7m votes cast. That amounts to 0.000004 per cent of votes.
What reaction has the plan for voter ID received?
Celebrities, civil rights organisations and homelessness charities have condemned the plans, warning that the need to produce photo ID will essentially lead to a paywall to vote and exclude marginalised groups from voting.
The voter ID plans are “an authoritarian disgrace that could disenfranchise millions of voters,” said David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham.
Boris Johnson is a “wannabe despot who is happy to trash all of our human rights,” he added.
Around 11 million people do not have access to a driving licence or passport, according to 2015 Electoral Commission research into the viability of voter ID.
But the issue threatens to affect ethnic minority groups and homeless people more acutely.
In a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, MPs and peers warned a voter ID requirement could breach the UK government’s Human Rights Convention duties by locking marginalised people out of democracy.
Simon Woolley, a crossbench peer and director of Operation Black Vote, told the committee a voter ID requirement would have a “monstrous negative effect” which “some have characterised as voter suppression”.
Many people in Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities may have concerns the government will “find a route for these ID cards” to act as “Big Brother to watch over them”, he added.
Government figures show 74 per cent of people hold a full driving licence. White people are more likely than other ethnicities to hold a driving license.
By contrast, 40 per cent of Asian people, nearly a third of people of mixed ethnicity and more than half of Black people do not have a full driving licence.
Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, told The Big Issue tackling election fraud is “admirable” but support is needed to ensure ethnic minority groups do not miss out on their right to vote.
Begum said: “It is important to ensure that mechanisms are put in place to protect those most at risk of losing their right to vote, such as a drive to register eligible voters and ensure no delays in the provision of free photo ID documentation to those who currently do not have any.”
However, the UK Government hit back against this claim, pointing to IFF research, commissioned by the Cabinet Office, that found 99 per cent of ethnic minorities had a form of identification that would be accepted under the proposals alongside 98 per cent of people who identify as white.
“People’s ability to access [voting] easily is part of the reason why so many people do access it,” Freddie Mallinson, the 23-year-old behind the Hands Off Our Vote petition as a “shot in the dark” back in February, told The Big Issue. “Every single thing you do to make that more difficult has massive, wide-ranging effects. An extra half hour of bureaucratic nonsense makes it that much harder to go and vote and could easily mean hundreds of thousands miss out on their chance to have a say.”
The Electoral Reform Society’s chief executive Darren Hughes said the plans will “lock millions out of the ballot box, skewing the system and deepening political inequalities” without a universal free ID scheme. The ERS have launched a petition against the plans. Hughes added: “We must not import US-style voter suppression to the UK.”
Photo ID is difficult for homeless people to acquire due to the cost and documents required to get a passport or driving licence. It is also hard to keep safe while living on the streets, according to Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes.
“Making photo ID a requirement for voting risks excluding people who are homeless and compromising a basic human right,” Sparkes told The Big Issue.
“When you are living out of a rucksack, whether on the streets, in hostels or shifting between friends’ sofas, important documents like ID can frequently get lost or stolen. With replacement costly, it can cause people a lot of difficulty claiming benefits, accessing healthcare and opening bank accounts.”
Celebrities have also spoken out against the plans from as diverse backgrounds as comedian Nish Kumar and television presenter Kirsty Allsopp. Kumar tweeted: “More cool policies from a government at war with poor people, people of colour and anyone who has the audacity to be both.”
Allsopp said she would need to see evidence of voter fraud before supporting the plan. She tweeted: “No one trusts us to do anything these days, but it feels like there is some bond between those that fought for my vote and me.”
Has voter ID been tried before in UK elections?
Voter ID has been mentioned in a Queen’s Speech before – Boris Johnson’s administration included identical plans in the state opening of parliament following the 2019 General Election.
There have also been voter ID pilots in recent years. There were ten pilot areas across England at the 2019 general election. The trial saw 1,968 people turned away from polling stations for not having suitable ID. Some 740 returned later to vote – only 38 per cent of those were initially denied. The issue affected between 0.03 and 0.7 per cent of all votes cast in the local authority areas.
The EC found that bringing in a voter card similar to the one used in Northern Ireland would cost between £1.8m and £10.8m per year to implement and promote.
The card would be free of charge for people who did not have other acceptable forms of photo ID, featuring the holder’s name and date of birth but would not contain any biometric information.
But ministers estimated this will cost nearly £18m per general election for councils, or another £40m out of the government’s budget, according to Labour.
How much does photo ID cost?
The cost of acquiring a photo ID can be prohibitive.
A written application for a standard passport costs £85 and a postal application for a provisional driving licence amounts to £43.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson that “legislation will make clear that local authorities must provide a voter card free of charge to anyone who does need it”.
The government department also said that anonymous electors will be able to apply for an anonymous elector voter card should they wish to vote in person.
Are there free alternatives to photo ID?
The UK government has said that plans are ongoing for a free local electoral document to be made available for people who do not have the photo ID needed to vote in elections.
CitizenCard represents an alternative photo ID option. The free card features a Home Office-endorsed Proof of Age Standards Scheme-hologram but is not as widely used as a driving licence or passport with 2.4 million CitzenCards issued since the scheme was launched in 1999.
In a previous voter ID pilot during 2018 local elections in Bromley, London, it was also possible to use a Freedom Pass – the card entitling over-65s to free public transport travel in London – to vote.
Voters could also use two forms of non-photo ID, such as a poll card, debit/credit card, bank statement or birth certificate, to act as ID. It has not been confirmed if this will be available in future elections.
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