In the News

Government plans for voter ID

Mike McCartney

13th May 2021

If restrictions on who can access the ballot box come into effect, then how can they express their voice?

Take a look at these notes on whether the UK can be considered a true democracy:

  • We could say that there are free elections. Virtually all are entitled to vote and stand for office. Elections in Britain are, by and large, fairly run and there is little corruption. However there is a strong argument that elections to the Westminster Parliament are unfair (include material demonstrating the distorting effects of first past the post). Elections to devolved assemblies, however, are fairer.
  • The existence of an elected, accountable House of Commons is a positive element, but the House of Lords (to date anyway) remains unelected and so fails the ‘democracy test’.
  • All citizens are represented by an MP and can expect their grievances to be taken up and represented to public bodies by MPs. But the MPs’ expenses scandal has caused the public to wonder whose interests are elected representatives are willing to put first.
  • Britain has now passed the Human Rights Act so the European Convention is binding on most public bodies. However, legal experts have pointed out that the ECHR has only been applied in a tiny number of cases, and most of the victories secured would have happened without reference to the ECHR.
  • There is a free, independent civil society, with many parties and pressure groups free to operate and to mobilise public opinion and represent popular demands to government. Though actions taken against public demonstrators, such as the G20 demo where people were detained for up to eight hours, put this into question.
  • There is a free media which is not controlled by government so the public have access to independent sources of information. That said, newspapers have no obligation to be politically neutral and may distort the message.
  • The rule of law applies and is protected by a largely independent judiciary. But statistical evidence shows that when the government is challenged in the courts it still wins far more cases than it loses.
  • There are a number of general criticisms of the British political system which can be added to the assessment. These include: the persistence of unelected elements such as the Monarchy and House of Lords, the lack of separation of powers and therefore, arguably, an over-powerful executive and the lack of a codified, entrenched constitution.

And then examine this story, "More than 2m voters may lack photo ID required under new UK bill," which ran on the front page of the Guardian yesterday. It says:

"More than 2 million UK voters could lack the necessary ID to take part in future elections, according to a government analysis of its flagship bill on voting rights, spurring warnings that “decades of democratic progress” risk going into reverse.

The plan for mandatory photo ID at elections – a central element of Tuesday’s Queen’s speech – risks disproportionately hitting older, disabled and homeless voters who are less likely to have such documents, critics said. US civil rights groups have warned it amounts to Republican-style voter suppression."

The full story is here:

In the hard copy of the paper, it goes on inside:

"A newly released UK-wide study, commissioned by the Cabinet Office, found that while 98% of adults possessed at least one of these types of ID, this fell to 96% where the photo was still definitely recognisable – a necessity for use in elections – meaning about 2.1 million people risked missing out.

The study showed the disproportionate impact of voter ID rules on certain groups and the likelihood of the law putting them off voting, even with a promised plan for councils to offer a free “voter card” to those needing one.

It found 91% of people aged over 85 possessed ID with a recognisable photo, and 94% of those with a disability. Of all those without any photo ID, more than a quarter said the new rules would make them less likely to vote, with 19% of people who did not have recognisable photo ID saying the same thing.

Opponents say the offence of impersonating another voter at a polling station is virtually nonexistent across the UK. From 2010-16, spanning two general elections and the EU referendum, there were 146 allegations with seven people convicted, five in a single case.

The proposals prompted alarm from a range of groups. Age UK said it “risks being a barrier to some older people exercising their democratic right to vote” while the homelessness charity Centrepoint called for more effort to stop vulnerable and low-income people “being potentially excluded from having a say at the ballot box”.

Cat Smith, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, said the government was “reversing decades of democratic progress” and urgently needed to rethink this “pointless policy”. “Voting is safe and secure in Britain,” she added. “Ministers should be promoting confidence in our elections instead of spreading baseless scare stories which threaten our democracy.”

Johnson’s spokesperson defended the ID measures as proportionate, saying: “We think showing identification to vote is a reasonable approach to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud.”

The plans also face a potential obstacle in the courts. Neil Coughlan, a 68-year-old from Essex who has no photo ID, has been fighting a crowdfunded legal case against the proposals since pilot schemes began in 2019, backed by groups including the LGBT Foundation, Stonewall and the Runnymede Trust. He has been granted permission to take his case to the supreme court."

So how does this story square with the first point in my notes about British democracy at the top of the screen?

Clearly, if this change goes through unamended from its current form then this kind of power grab will raise questions about the extent to which the UK is a democracy.

In fact, opponents to the plan have already voiced concerns for this very reason. See:

And here:

What do you think?

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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