Photo ID to Vote: Disenfranchisement or Fraud Free Elections?

BY KATIE MAGUIRE, UK Editor

New government plans to force the electorate to provide photographic ID in order to cast their votes have a worrying potential to further disenfranchise minorities, as the equality watchdog has reportedly warned. Similar policies at the state level in America, which these plans have been likened to, have similarly been criticised for many years for the same disenfranchisement of minority groups, particularly African Americans.

Ahead of the local elections on May 3rd, the government are piloting a new scheme in three local authorities requiring people to produce documents that prove their identity before they are allowed to cast their vote. The idea is to combat election fraud.

Whilst on the face of it this proposal seems like a straightforward way to tackle problems of election fraud, it will adversely affect the poorer people in society, particularly ethnic minorities, as warned in a leaked letter from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

These groups are less likely to possess the documentation, namely passport or driving licence,  that will be necessary to vote. Given that right now the cost of a passport stands at £75.50/£85 depending on whether you apply online or by Post Office form, or £34/£43 for a driving licence, it is not difficult to see how if you aren’t planning on going abroad or learning to drive, driving licences and passports are an unnecessary expense, especially if finances are already tight. Is it, therefore, right that people will have to effectively give a downpayment to access their democratic right?

Claire Collier, the legal secretary of the Equalities and Human Rights commision wrote of the commission’s concerns that this requirement “will have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly older people, transgender people, people with disabilities and/or those from ethnic minority communities. In essence, there is a concern that some voters will be disenfranchised as a result of restrictive identification requirements,”

One of the main lines being repeated in defence of this policy, for instance by Minister for the Constitution Chloe Smith, is that to collect a parcel or hire a car, ID is required, so why is it not for voting? However, both these examples are flawed at the offset.

The biggest flaw in this argument is that collecting a parcel and hiring a car are choices, not rights guaranteed to all citizens. There should be no obstacles to people accessing their democratic right to vote, the principle of this example is not an appropriate comparison.

Secondly, if you are in a position to hire a car, you will already have learned to drive and hence will already have a driving license in order to do so. The only “licence” to vote should be that you are a citizen.

Similarly, photographic identification is not required to collect a parcel, in fact, there are twenty-one different forms of identification that can be used to collect said parcel, including a birth certificate, credit/debit card, or a paid utility bill. Collecting a parcel, therefore, is less restrictive than the measures planned to be introduced at the voting booth.

The government has put forward ways to combat the disenfranchisement of those without photographic ID, suggesting the local authorities will be the ones to accommodate those without a photo ID. They would, therefore, have to contact local authority and receive an explanation from them on how they can provide you with an alternative document. I would argue that this is not enough. This would serve to further complicate the process of registering to vote, only serving to make it harder and more arduous for minorities, for instance, many vulnerable elderly people surely would not benefit from the confusion.

Furthermore, this is a vague proposal and in leaving it up to the discretion of local authorities could cause further confusion down the line and create variation depending on where people live, which is not democratic and has the potential to be inherently unfair. Not to mention in order to get on the electoral register, you must provide your National Insurance number, which is proof in itself of one’s right to vote.

The criticisms of these proposals could not have come at a worse time for Theresa May who is facing the consequences of her Home Office’s mistakes relating to the Windrush generation who despite legally migrating to the UK in order to help rebuild the country after the second world war, have been facing problems accessing healthcare and other state services, including obtaining a passport.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has come out in firm opposition to these proposals, drawing direct parallels to the Windrush scandal, telling the Observer “It is the same hostile environment all over again, shutting our fellow citizens out of public life, treating communities who made Britain their home as second-class citizens. It’s disgraceful and it must be brought to an end.”

Calls for these plans to be abandoned have also come from dozens of campaign organizations that safeguard the rights of minorities including Age UK, Stonewall and Operation Black Vote, who all echo the warnings that these proposals will only cause further marginalisation of minority groups.

Two major questions we must ask are; are these proposals then worth disenfranchising the already marginalised communities of Britain in order to combat electoral fraud, which in the UK the Electoral Commission has found to be minimal? And is it cynical to note that the people in the groups that are likely to be disenfranchised due to lack of photographic ID are less likely to vote Conservative?

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