A group of 40 charities and academics, led by the independent voting rights group the Electoral Reform Society has asked the government to back down on its upcoming voter ID trial. The request has seen national opposition to the trial solidify, with parliamentary Labour and Liberal Democrats coming out against it. However in the case of the Lib Dems, the policy is conflicting with some Liberal Democrat council policy.
The result of repeated Electoral Commission reports, and a report by Sir Eric Pickles in August 2016, the trial will require voters to present ID in order for them to vote. Five councils have signed up: Bromley, Swindon, Gosport, and Woking: all Conservative-controlled, and the Liberal Democrat-controlled Watford Council. The trial will be used to decide whether to roll out the requirements nationwide.
According to the government, it is ‘a move to tackle electoral fraud … after reports [that] alleged … voter impersonation more than doubled between 2014 and 2016’. This is misleading in its gravity. In 2016, cases of voter impersonation at polling stations (the type of electoral fraud the programme is designed to prevent), numbered 44. The potential for exclusion of voters however is alarming in scale: by the Electoral Commission’s own statistics, 3.5 million voters, representing 7.5 per cent of the electorate, do not have access to any form of government verified photo ID. If narrowed to just passports and drivers’ licenses, nearly a quarter of the electorate lacks ID.
The most recent voter fraud statistics also undercut the government’s justification. Analysing data from the 2017 General Election, the Electoral Commission found a drop in alleged cases of voter impersonation, from 44 to 28. This represents a drop of similar scale as the increase being used to justify the trial. Further, owing to the small sample size for the trial, and the similarly small scale of the problem it will likely be impossible to gain accurate statistics on the policy’s effectiveness.
The nature of the trial is also confusing, and ID verification models vary wildly between Councils. While Woking, Watford, and Bromley Councils all accept EU passports, driving licenses, EEA identity cards, biometric residency permits, and Northern Irish electoral identity cards, all have different mechanisms for voters without these. Woking Council has the most restrictive requirements so far. In addition to those IDs mentioned, Surrey seniors, disabled, and student transport cards and 16-25 rail cards are acceptable ID. Otherwise, voters will have to specially apply for a ‘Local Elector Card’ to vote. Bromley Council allows voters to bring two of the following: credit or debit cards, poll cards, birth, marriage, or adoption certificates, and a bank, utility, or credit statement from the previous three months in lieu of photo ID. Watford Council has so far the most inclusive method: a month and a half prior to the election the Council will issue poll cards to all voters that can be presented in the absence of photo ID.
This puts the Watford Liberal Democrats somewhat at odds with their counterparts in Parliament and in other councils. Speaking to Shout Out UK, Mayor of Watford Dorothy Thornhill said that ‘Unlike other pilot authorities, all we are doing is asking voters to remember to bring their poll card when they go and vote on May 3rd … this pilot certainly shouldn’t lead to anyone being disenfranchised’. In all elections, voters are issued with polling cards, but only for the Watford Council Election will they be required to vote. It remains to be seen if this requirement will be adequately explained to voters in Watford, and if it will hurt voter turnout.
Regardless, following the Electoral Reform Society’s efforts, the Parliamentary Liberal Democrats have affirmed their opposition to the trial. A spokesperson for Ed Davey MP, the Liberal Democrat responsible for Home Affairs affirmed fellow Lib Dem MP Tom Brake’s remarks in September as party policy:
‘we do not think (the trial) necessary. Introducing voter ID is a solution to something that is not a serious problem, and it has the potential to disenfranchise voters’.
In Gosport (another council on the pilot) Peter Chegwyn, leader of the opposition for the Liberal Democrats, also expressed staunch disapproval to the trial, saying:
‘we think it smacks of American Republican tactics, making it harder to vote, and people less inclined to vote … we think it helps the Conservatives, and disadvantages everyone else’.
On his counterparts in Watford partaking in the trial he said ‘we haven’t had contact, but our view is it’s retrograde’.
The trial does still have its supporters in the party. In Swindon, Liberal Democrat councillor Stan Pajak expressed a personal view that he was not against the trial, and was interested in the results stating: ‘it may help turnout because everyone will receive letters reminding them of the vote and what is required’.
Watford remaining in the trial makes it the only non-Conservative council to partake, albeit with a significantly different model. Slough had been the only Labour council criticised for taking part, voting unanimously in January last year to partake in the trial. However in October the Slough Labour leadership U-turned, and moved to pull out of the trial. Two Labour councillors rebelled, seven walked out, and Conservative and UKIP councillors voted against the pull out. Despite the rebellion, the motion passed 20 to 10 and Slough removed itself from the trial.
The petition has also seen an explicit policy manifest from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Cat Smith, Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs stated: ‘the Government cannot ignore this warning from an unprecedented coalition of charities and academics … the Government must urgently rethink their plan’.
A sharp drop in voter turnout in those councils trialling voter ID would likely make the policy untenable. Then again, despite the sharp drop in alleged voter impersonation identified by the Electoral Commission, the trial is still going ahead.
Disclaimer: Matteo Bergamini, Founder and Director of Shout Out UK, was a signatory of the Electoral Reform Society’s petition.