Yesterday I held a debate in Parliament on the voter ID pilot which took place in the May local Government elections across five Boroughs, including Bromley which part of my constituency covers. The pilot required voters to present identification before casting their ballot and is part of a programme to prevent impersonation at polling stations. Impersonation is a type of fraud whereby someone votes at a polling station pretending to be someone else.
The Government have hailed the pilot as a success which demonstrates that a voter ID scheme is “a reasonable and proportionate measure to take”. However, I believe these are the most disproportionate and ill-thought changes to our electoral system in recent years and proposals to roll the scheme out nationally should be scrapped immediately.
Electoral fraud is a serious crime and every allegation needs to be investigated fully. However, the proposals outlined by the Government are clearly disproportionate. Data from the Electoral Commission shows that in 2015 there were just 26 allegations of fraud based on impersonation, amounting to 0.000051% of overall votes cast and in 2017 there were just 28 allegations with one prosecution amounting to 0.000063% of overall votes cast.
It is also virtually impossible for voter impersonation to affect an election result on any large scale. It is only possible to ‘steal’ one vote through impersonation. Therefore, to effectively influence an election would require a professional campaign coordinating thousands of fraudsters, the nature of such a campaign would make it easily identifiable.
In addition, the introduction of the scheme would make no difference to allegations of fraud with postal votes, proxy votes, breaches of secrecy, tampering with ballot papers, bribery, undue influence, or electoral expenditure. Therefore, Voter ID would do little to prevent determined fraudsters from acting.
As such it would seem this is a solution in search of a problem. On top of this the Cabinet Office previously claimed the trial was deemed necessary “after reports of alleged electoral fraud through voter impersonation more than doubled between 2014 and 2016”, citing Electoral Commission data.
However, shortly after this, the UK Statistics Authority condemned this statement as misleading the public. Although the number of alleged cases of impersonation rose from 21 to 44 from 2014 to 2016, the total number of votes cast rose from 29 million to 64 million. The number of cases subsequently dropped to 28 in 2017.
The main issue is the extent to which this scheme would disenfranchise a vast swathe of the electorate. The Equality and Human Rights Commission have previously warned the Government that voter ID would have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people, and people with disabilities.
Interestingly, none of the five Boroughs in the trial had a significantly poorer or ethnically diverse population than the national average, which to my mind puts in question the validity of the trial. Furthermore, evidence from the USA (which has strict voter ID rules) has shown that the scheme disproportionately affects marginalised groups because those who can’t afford to drive or go on holiday don’t spend to get the required ID.
In response to these points, the Minister for the Constitution made the case that the pilot had been a success commenting that only 340 people were unable to vote. However, this is a figure 12 times greater than the national number of voter fraud allegations in 2017. If this figure was scaled nationally it would represent a significant percentage of the population being denied their vote.
This is particularly salient considering the recent Windrush scandal, which has shown that even those who are both legitimate citizens and voters have struggled to access services which they are entitled to. Further expansion of these voter ID schemes could see the Windrush generation also denied their democratic rights adding further insult to injury.
There is no doubt that citizens were denied votes in the trial and there is no doubt that voters were put off; disproportionately so in comparison to previous reports of voter fraud. How can this flagrant disregard for disenfranchising voters be regarded as a success especially when we are celebrating the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote?
The Minister further went on to make the case that electoral fraud is not a victimless crime and that the impact of the crime on voters means taking away the victims right to vote as they want. Whilst I have no dispute with this statement and believe that appropriate measures should be taken to mitigate electoral fraud I return to the evidence from the trial that more people were denied their right to vote than people who had their vote stolen nationally in 2017.
The 2017 figure that 0.000063% of overall votes cast were allegedly fraudulent is set against data that shows 7.5% of the electorate do not hold any photographic ID. This would mean those at risk from disenfranchisement outweighs allegations of voter fraud by a factor of over 119,000. I have previously used the analogy of a sledgehammer to crack a nut but I am no longer confident that it is a sufficient metaphor to describe the utterly disproportionate methods we have seen trialled this year.
Concluding the debate the Minister for the Constitution stated that “this really is a simple matter of principle: do we or do we not believe in stamping out electoral fraud?” There is no doubt that electoral fraud must be combatted, but it remains, the problem is almost non-existent. However, if disenfranchising segments of the electorate is a ‘matter of principle’, then this shines an interesting light on the Government’s view of who should and should not be allowed to vote.
The feedback and statistics from the pilot suggest that preventing people from voting in this way will have a far bigger impact on election results than current alleged fraud does. A concern which has been echoed by the Electoral Reform Society who state the measures may potentially indicate an attempt by the Government to deter some citizens from voting.
This alongside the UK Statistics authority condemnation of the Government for misleading the public gives weight to the argument that they are pursuing this scheme to alter the course of future elections through voter suppression as opposed to trying to prevent a crime which is far from rife in our society.
All of this leads me to believe that instead of being a 'practical policy' the Government's Voter ID scheme is better represented as 'political tactics' to disenfranchise voters.