Runnymede's Senior Policy Officer, Alba Kapoor, gives an in-depth look at the Elections Bill and why mandatory Voter ID poses a threat of disenfranchisement to certain voters in the UK.
Today, Members of Parliament will debate the Elections Bill, which would make it mandatory to show photo ID when casting a vote at local and national elections. The Government has proposed this Bill with the stated intention to reduce voter fraud. However, in 2019 there was just one case of conviction for voter impersonation in the UK. That same year, when Voter ID was trialled at local elections 740, out of 2000, people were turned away - and did not come back.
So, what’s the problem?
Instead, mandatory Voter ID has the potential to prevent millions - disproportionately ethnic minority, working-class, LGBT+, elderly, and young people - from voting. Given the low rates of voter fraud in this country, the introduction of legislation that hinders already excluded groups from participating in democratic processes is a disproportionate response to an invisible problem.
In the UK, 3.5 million eligible voters do not have any form of photo ID. Although over three-quarters of white people hold a full driving license, 38% of Asian people and 48% of Black people do not. According to the 2011 census, only 66% of those of Gypsy or Irish Traveller background hold a passport.
Obtaining a new form of photo ID takes time away from work and caring responsibilities and is difficult to do. Even if a free photo ID card were made available from local councils, as has been pledged, over half of respondents to a government-commissioned survey stated that they would be unlikely to apply for one.
The introduction of voter ID could stop over 2 million people from voting, a figure equivalent to 4% of the electorate. 11% of those unemployed, 13% of those renting from the local authority, and 12% of those renting from a housing association lacking any form of ID. Black and ethnic minority communities are amongst those most likely to be overrepresented in these groups.
The Windrush scandal showed the disastrous consequence of asking people to prove their identity to access vital public services. Black British citizens were denied hospital treatment, lost their homes and jobs, and were made destitute when rigid ID requirements were imposed on them. This Bill will compound the barriers that are already facing ethnic minority communities in our democracy.
Registration rates for Black and Asian people are significantly lower than for white people. Runnymede’s own polling found that ethnic minority groups are more likely to struggle to register to vote online. A Cabinet Office study showed that these barriers are in part because of socio-economic disparities, including where you live.
Black and ethnic minority people in this country are significantly less likely to be satisfied with the voter registration system and to have a say in the UK’s future. In the 2019 general election, as in 2017, there was an estimated lower turnout amongst ethnic minority groups.
Rather than increasing barriers to participation in democratic processes, mandatory Voter ID seemingly lacking any common sense would rather limit democracy, and disenfranchise millions of eligible voters.
We must therefore ask, what proportionate problem is this legislation attempting to solve?
The global context
While mandatory Voter ID is already in place in much of mainland Europe, this is accompanied by mandatory state-issued ID cards, and are not reliant on citizens having to apply for them.
Earlier this year, leading civil rights groups in the USA gave a stark warning that Voter ID legislation in Britain will have a harmful impact and is likely to erode faith in the democratic process, rather than reinforce it. These same groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and Commons Cause, were at the frontline against former President Trump’s voter suppression efforts which were largely targeted at the African American electorate.
It is notable that this Voter ID legislation is being proposed in the UK whilst Joe Biden concurrently launches a heavy push for ‘voters rights’ in the USA, recently labelling voter suppression initiatives as “un-American”.
At a time of political crisis, the Government should be trying to increase engagement in democracy, not hinder it. Instead of spending an estimated £20 million per general election to make it harder for marginalised groups to vote, the Government could be acting to increase voter registration and turnout.
This means consulting on proposals to introduce automatic voter registration so that no one is unsure of whether they are able to vote before election day. Runnymede polling shows that ethnic minority communities are more likely to vote if automatic voter registration was introduced, as well as being able to vote on the weekends. Indeed, we found that automatic registration would make 38% Indian, 31% Pakistani, 37% Bangladeshi, 37% Chinese, 42% African and 32% Caribbean respondents more likely to vote.
We know that if you are disabled, trans, of an ethnic minority group, younger, renting, or elderly you are less likely to have a form of photo ID. Voices that are desperately needed to make our society fairer and more inclusive will be shut out of the electorate as a result of this Bill.
It risks silencing those who most need to be heard.