The government must stop misleading us. Voter ID could disenfranchise millions

Cat Smith
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

The introduction of mandatory voter ID is set to be a flagship government policy during this parliament. Huge swathes of the population are facing the loss of their vote at the next election with 3.5 million citizens, 7.5% of the electorate, in the UK without photo ID.

We saw with the Windrush scandal how some communities struggle to provide official documentation with severe consequences. Yet the Tories continue to plough on with changes that disproportionately exclude certain groups, such as the young, the old, disabled people and Black, Asian and minority ethnic people from voting.

The government says enforcing voter ID will combat voter fraud. However, there is no evidence that impersonation at polling stations is a significant problem. After last year’s general election, which had a high turnout, there was just one conviction for personation. As the Electoral Reform Society has put it, this is a solution without a problem.

New evidence by Labour revealed this week raises serious questions about whether ministers have misled the House over the impact that the government’s plans would have on Black, Asian and minority ethnic voters. Taking a leaf out of the Republican’s voter suppression handbook, Tory ministers have repeatedly claimed that imposing mandatory photographic ID at the next election will “not impact any particular demographic group”. This carefully worded phrase has been repeated by rote time and time again.

When asked in a written question for this evidence, Chloe Smith, the Tory minister for the constitution, pointed to the Electoral Commission’s independent assessment of the Voter ID pilots. But this so-called ‘evidence’ simply does not exist. In its post-pilot evaluation, the Electoral Commission said “there is not yet enough evidence to fully address concerns and answer questions about the impact of identification requirements on voters”. And the government does not hold any evidence internally either.

A series of Freedom of Information requests further clarifies the baseless claims made by ministers, defending their plans. We have revealed that no government department holds any data about the possession of ID by ethnicity. The government is making the critical mistake of assuming that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. But the absence of evidence that Black, Asian and minority ethnic voters will face discrimination as a result of this policy is not evidence that discrimination will not occur.

Research suggests that Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities struggle to access photographic ID. Indeed, ONS statistics reveal that 76% of White people have a driving licence compared with 52% of Black people. The independent Equality and Human Rights Commission also notified the government that voter ID will have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and people with disabilities.

It is no accident that organisations including Operation Black Vote and Mencap have denounced the introduction of voter ID. Since this policy was first announced in December 2016, the government has received multiple warnings from charities, civil society figures and campaign groups that mandatory voter ID – if rolled out nationally – could pull up the drawbridge for millions of voters.

It begs the question of why the government has failed to collect this data, given the high-profile status of this flagship policy. My concern is that the government may be doing it not only despite, but because of, the disproportionate disenfranchisement of certain groups. The groups most likely not to vote because of the introduction of voter ID are also among the least likely to vote for the current government. ​

Behind the carefully crafted messaging, the government has made no effort to ensure voter ID does not disproportionately impact Black, Asian and minority ethnic people. Ministers must clarify these inconsistencies and commit to instructing government departments to gather data broken down by ethnicity. But whilst Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities continue to remain invisible to public bodies, investigating the true impact of voter ID on them will be impossible.

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