It seemed like a fairly small number when the Electoral Commission announced that 0.25% of people who tried to vote at the local elections in May were not issued with a ballot paper because of the new voter ID requirement.
But drill down into the detail and the figures start to sound more alarming. In fact 0.7% of people were turned away from polling stations, 70% because they had not brought any ID and 30% because they had brought a type that was not accepted. A special ID card was available free of charge for those who did not have a passport or a driving licence, but only just over half the voters were aware of this (57%) in May 2023.
In total approximately 14,000 voters were unable to vote because of the requirement for voter ID. But this figure doesn’t take into account people who were put off showing up at the polling station. The Electoral Commission conducted interim analysis of people entitled to vote in the 4 May election, finding that:
- 4% of all people who said they did not vote gave the ID requirement as the reason
- that includes 3% who did not have the necessary ID, and
- 1% said they disagreed with the new requirement
- the 4% figure rose to 7% when respondents were asked to select from a list of reasons
- preliminary figures also suggest that disabled and unemployed people were more likely to be turned away, and there may also be a relationship with ethnicity
When these percentages are applied to the number of people who normally vote in a general election in the whole of the UK, the number will be much higher. It isn’t possible to make a definitive calculation of the numbers, because the Electoral Commission has so far refused to reveal the turnout at the local elections and has not given any reason (it will be included in their final report on the effect of voter ID, due in September). This seems unduly secretive. As the chair of the Commons Levelling-up Committee, Clive Betts MP, commented:
“It appears that the Government has designed a system which denies the prospect of sensible and co-ordinated information collection and makes it almost impossible to judge the true impact of the introduction of voter ID.”
Despite the lack of information on turnout, it is possible to estimate the likely number of people who will be disenfranchised at local elections because of voter ID requirements. Polly Toynbee put the figure at 400,000 in an article in The Guardian, and it is very possible the figure will be over half a million. That is a huge number of votes to lose in an election, especially when the number of cases of personation at the May 4th local elections – the problem that photo-ID was allegedly intended to solve – was zero.
Two Conservative politicians have admitted that their party had a political motive for introducing ID for elections: Jacob Rees-Mogg said:
“Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them – as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections. We found the people who didn’t have ID were elderly and they by and large voted Conservative, so we made it hard for our own voters and we upset a system that worked perfectly well”.
Asked about the former Business Secretary’s remarks, Rishi Sunak said he was “very comfortable” with the proposals and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has told the media that no action is being taken.
Lord Peter Cruddas, appointed a peer by Boris Johnson in defiance of advice from the House of Lords Appointments Commission, said: “If Labour wins they will reduce the voting age, abolish voter ID, and introduce Proportional Representation making it impossible for the Conservative party to win an outright majority in the future.”
And remember that it was a Conservative government that scrapped photo ID cards that had already been rolled out in some regions at the time of the 2010 election (though they were not intended for use in elections). The then Home Secretary Theresa May ordered civil servants to destroy the scheme’s database and declared existing ID-cards to be null and void without compensation even though they were already in use.
The recommendation of the initial report of the Electoral Commission was that “further work is required” on voter ID in order to ensure that elections remain truly accessible to all. More detailed recommendations may be included in the final report in September.
It is worth recalling at this stage that the Electoral Commission was established by the Labour government as an independent regulator to oversee elections and party donations. It was answerable to parliament and not to the government, but it has had its powers to set its own agenda removed. Its agenda will now be set by a Government minister
In February 2022, the Commission sent a public letter to ministers expressing concern about proposed changes in the Elections Bill. The letter said giving Ministers the power to draw up a “strategy and policy statement”, enabling the government to guide the work of the commission, was “inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy”.
The letter was signed by the full board of the commission with one exception, the Conservative peer Stephen Gilbert.