The future of the left since 1884

Warning signs

Changes to voting arrangements represent the first step on a slippery slope, argues Cat Smith.



The significance of the local elections this year was largely downplayed by political commentators. The Observer described it as a poll where “everyone won something but nothing changed”.

In fact, Labour achieved a solid set of results. We consolidated and built on the advances we made at last year’s general election and won seats across England in places we have never held before. We also recognise that locally the picture was more mixed with big variations.

But the biggest change was perhaps not in the result, but in the election process. For the first time ever, voters in Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking were required to show identification to cast their vote at the polling station. Those without the required ID on polling day were turned away and denied their right to vote.

We cannot overlook the significance of these voter ID pilots. Figures released by the returning officers show that at least 340 people were unable to vote in the five pilot areas because of the new requirements, which the government has described as ‘a great success’.

Before unpicking the numbers, we should first reflect on this extremely disturbing position. The Windrush scandal has demonstrated that it can be difficult for some communities to provide official documentation. And now the government has celebrated a policy that disenfranchised hundreds of legitimate voters. This included people who have voted their entire lives.

It is also very misleading for the government to claim that the 340 voters disenfranchised by the pilot scheme represent only a small and insignificant group, when they plan to roll it out on a national scale.

According to Dr John Ault, director of Democracy Volunteers: “If we applied the percentage of those recorded by local councils as being turned away in the five pilot boroughs to the 2017 general election, this could have affected the outcome of nine parliamentary constituencies.”

In that case, with the Tories in a precarious minority administration, voter ID could alter the impact of the next election.

We know that there is a significant financial barrier involved. Many people cannot afford a holiday abroad, or indeed a passport, particularly now that the government has pushed through unpopular proposals to increase the cost of adult passports from £72.50 to a whopping £85.

The government was warned time and time again that restrictive voter ID requirements would make it harder for people to vote. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has said voter ID will have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people, and people with disabilities.

This significant intervention echoes concerns raised by a coalition of more than 40 leading charities and academics who earlier this year the government to abandon the pilots. In a letter to the Cabinet Office, the group said the voter ID pilots presented “a significant barrier to democratic engagement and risk compromising a basic human right for some of the most marginalised groups in society”. Despite these warning signs, the government decided to pilot discriminatory measures in the full knowledge that voters could be disenfranchised.

The changes have been presented as a solution to tackle the specific issue of voter impersonation – where someone votes at a polling station pretending to be someone else. Electoral fraud is a serious crime and every allegation needs to be investigated fully. Isolated incidents of electoral fraud have indeed taken place and it is vital that the police have the resources they need to bring about prosecution.

However, the government’s response is clearly disproportionate. In 2017 there were 28 allegations of impersonation out of nearly 45 million votes cast – or just one case for every 1.6 million votes. Of these 28 allegations, only one case resulted in a conviction.

None of the five English boroughs that took part in the voter ID pilots have experienced a single instance of polling station impersonation in the past decade. Trust in our democratic system is vital, which is why strategies to tackle fraud should be based on facts.

Manipulating people’s concerns about voter fraud in order to build support for repressive voter ID laws is a tactic too often used by right-wing politicians in the United States. Research by the Brennan Centre indicates that strict voter ID requirements in the United States are a deliberate and well-established method of conservative US states to depress voter turnout amongst minority groups. According to a recent report by Professor Hajnal from the University of California San Diego, strict identification laws caused voter turnout in US general election to drop by five per cent among individuals from minority groups. We cannot allow this Conservative government to take lessons from the US Republican Party and follow a similar path of voter suppression.

The Labour party believes democracy is for everyone. We want everyone’s voice to be heard, no matter their background. And, in the year when we mark 100 years of women over 30 achieving the right to vote, we should challenge ourselves to further build and strengthen our democracy and resist the efforts of those who would turn back the clock.

Cat Smith MP

Cat Smith is the Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood and the shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs.


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