Voting in Britain is incredibly easy. Often, you receive a card, reminding you of your polling station, usually a school, church or community center. On election day, you can arrive without the card, state your name and address to two volunteers, then mark your preference on the ballot with a pencil. In Northern Ireland, an electoral identity card is required to prove your age and name, and is issued for free. The process is straightforward, and remaining registered is just a matter of registering online or returning one of the letters the local council regularly sends to each property.
But that’s changing in many areas: the Conservatives are piloting a scheme that requires identification before individuals can cast their vote. Citing concerns around electoral fraud, passports and driving licenses are accepted, but the trial is clearly designed to prevent the poorest and most vulnerable in society from being able to vote at all. Those who are homeless often lose paperwork and identification. And for many people the cost of a passport, £75.50, is prohibitive. Many people never learn to drive — I have epilepsy so am banned from even holding a provisional license. The people affected by the change are the poorest and most vulnerable in society — and also the least likely to vote Conservative.
The scheme reeks of other attempts at gerrymandering from the Conservatives: pushing for a boundary review of constituencies (“redistricting,” in American lingo) that with the altered electoral math would have seen the Conservatives easily become the largest party, and prominent left-wingers including Jeremy Corbyn losing their seats in Parliament. Another move to update the Electoral Register saw the number of people registered to vote shrink by 1.2 million between 2012 and 2016.
The decision to kick hundreds of thousands of people off the electoral roll targeted students, young people who move often, and, again, the poorest, who are evicted and live in temporary accommodation. Homelessness makes everything difficult, but remaining on the electoral roll while sleeping rough or even couch-surfing becomes near impossible. University towns were listed as particular hotspots for huge dips in the numbers registered, and since the Great Electoral Betrayal of 2010, students overwhelmingly vote Labour, not Liberal Democrat.
The government could attempt to make several arguments in favor of tightening up identity around elections, but none of their arguments are borne out by fact. Ministers have argued no one will be turned away, and campaigns will inform people of new rules in time. Yet in one of the early trials of a voter ID requirement, in the 2016 local elections, around 350 people were turned away for not bringing photographic ID to the ballot box.
The trials in 2018 were small, but if fully rolled out, the 3.5 million people without any form of ID, whether a passport or driving license, could see huge numbers disenfranchised because they’re unable to pay in order to vote. One voter, Neil Coughlan, is bringing a legal challenge against the government, crowdfunding his court costs, since without a passport or driving license, he does not expect to be able to vote.
The most fervent argument used by ministers to bat away criticism is around electoral fraud. First, Northern Ireland experienced the issue firsthand and provided free identification to mitigate the effects. Second, in the 2017 general election there were twenty-eight allegations of someone having lied about their identity at a polling station and only one conviction, amid forty-five million votes cast. Even ignoring the obscene cost of the trial, it’s clear the risk of denying people their right to vote is far greater than the likelihood of actually stopping an electoral offense being permitted.
So why do it? Proponents argue the answer is fairness, but the people affected show the system is anything but. As long as free or even low-cost ID does not exist in Britain, mandatory schemes are essentially pay-as-you-vote. Young people vote less often anyway, and with the number of under-twenties holding driving licenses down 40 percent, even those who can be bothered will likely be turned away on polling day.
But the British government is still attempting to mitigate and downplay the fallout from the Windrush Scandal, which hounded black British citizens with the legal right to remain in this country, and demanded they prove their right to remain while denying them the documents that proved those rights. The “hostile environment” lives on in the whole government apparatus that surrounds us: a hospital appointment letter I received this morning informed me in all caps that I might be required to show proof of my nationality before I was allowed to have my back operated on.
The government will happily deny you cancer treatment until a small shaft of public outcry forces their hand; people losing the right to vote will not provoke the same emotional response, in spite of affecting far, far more people.