openDemocracyUK: Opinion

David Davis: MPs have last chance to save the UK’s freedom to vote

The government claims the Elections Bill is designed to protect our democracy. As a former Tory minister, I know this is nonsense

David Davis
17 January 2022, 5.19pm
Requiring mandatory ID to vote would leave millions unable to cast their ballot
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Raymond Tang / Alamy Stock Photo

The Elections Bill returns to the Commons today. Ministers will no doubt claim the legislation is necessary to ‘protect our democracy’ from the scourge of voter impersonation.

But look beyond the government's rhetoric and it quickly becomes apparent that their claims are nonsense.

While there can be issues around voter fraud in British elections, impersonation is not one of them.

The bill will, in fact, do the very opposite of protecting our democracy. In proposing to introduce mandatory voter ID, the government risks undermining one of the most fundamental rights we have here in the UK – to vote freely without restriction.

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In short, voter ID is an illiberal policy in pursuit of a non-existent problem.

The number of allegations and convictions for voter impersonation are so low that requiring photographic ID is a wholly disproportionate response: just 88 allegations of in-person voter fraud were made between 2015 and 2019, during which time a total of 153 million votes were cast, including at three separate general elections.

And these were just allegations. The instances of proven voter impersonation are even more minuscule: in 2019, there was one conviction and one caution relating to in-person fraud. And in 2017, there was a single allegation of impersonation that led to a conviction.

It is clear the problem is nowhere near the scale ministers would have us believe. But the government continues to use electoral fraud to justify the drive for voter ID.

Downright discriminatory

The reality is that mandatory voter ID presents a risk to democracy and equality because it will leave millions of voters unable to cast their ballot.

Voter ID is like a US Republican policy of voter suppression, deliberately trying to undermine the voting capabilities of the disadvantaged and marginalised groups who would overwhelmingly vote for the Democrats.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has published a report into the Elections Bill. The committee warned that the introduction of a photo ID requirement may have a discriminatory impact on certain groups who are less likely to hold any form of photo ID, including older people and people with disabilities. This could create barriers to exercising their right to vote.

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In an attempt to address concerns, the government launched a trial of voter ID in 2018. Five councils participated in mandatory voter ID trials: Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking. These areas are not representative of the groups that would be affected. Consequently, the study was meaningless.

Unlike in mainland Europe, where everyone has a mandatory national ID card, here in the UK it is the case that, the richer you are, the more likely it is that you have ID.

For example, those who cannot afford to go on foreign holidays will not fork out the £75 it costs to get a passport. Those who cannot afford a car will not pay £34 to apply for a driving licence.

When you are on the breadline, paying for ID is the least of your priorities.

Further research commissioned by the government found that those with disabilities, the unemployed, people without qualifications, and those who had never voted before, were all less likely to hold any form of ID.

That research also found one in 11 over-85s and one in 17 disabled people lacked photo ID.

This policy risks not only being illiberal but also downright discriminatory.

Implementation of Voter ID

The same government-commissioned research found 2% of adults in England, Scotland and Wales do not have any form of photo ID and 4% do not have photo ID in which the individual is recognisable from their picture. That rises to 9% who do not have in-date, recognisable photo ID.

The government’s answer to this is free photographic ID provided by local authorities.

But to get the ID card, prospective voters will have to take time off work or caring responsibilities to travel to the council offices to request it.

When you already face problems such as making sure you have enough to pay the bills, making sure there’s food on the table, or caring for elderly relatives, finding time to go to the council and ask for something you will use once every four years will be the least of your worries.

Government research found one in 11 over-85s and one in 17 disabled people lack photo ID

The government knows this. Some 56% of respondents in the government’s survey said they were unlikely or very unlikely to apply for such a card.

All this amounts to is an expensive and illogical plan that simply makes it harder for certain groups of people to vote. The government’s figures suggest the scheme will cost up to an extra £20m per general election.

This is frankly wasted expenditure and does nothing to address the fundamental question of why this government is making it harder to vote.

It cannot be right that in a modern democracy a voter could turn up to a polling station and be turned away because they do not look like their ten-year-old passport photo. Or, even worse, because they have simply forgotten their ID.

The bonfire of a culture war

I am not saying that our system of voting is perfect, but the government’s response is both wildly disproportionate and profoundly unconservative.

The right to vote in our country – one that many take for granted – should not, and indeed must not, rest on having government-issued ID.

This country has a long and proud history of upholding civil liberties. We have thankfully avoided situations seen elsewhere in Europe whereby ID has to be shown for citizens to go about regular day-to-day lives.

Yet we have flirted with such ideas before.

In 2008, I resigned and forced a by-election in part in opposition to the Labour government’s undemocratic proposals for ID cards.

Today, we have a similar fight on our hands with the Tory government’s attempt to introduce ID cards at the ballot box.

If we are truly serious about wanting to improve our voting system, we should be looking at the nine million people currently missing from the electoral roll. We should be doing all we can to reduce that number and encouraging people to vote.

This proposal will do the precise opposite. All it will achieve is to add to the number of people unable to vote.

The ability to take part in free and fair elections is a right that has been viciously fought for over hundreds of years and forms a vital part of this nation’s history. We should remember that before throwing our fundamental right to vote on the bonfire of a culture war to appeal to a populist fringe.

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