UK election
A voter leaves a polling location in the UK.
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Queen announced that UK citizens will need photo ID to vote in upcoming elections.
  • In a country where an estimated quarter of voters lack ID, the move undermines democracy and disproportionately harms marginalized citizens.
  • With extraordinarily low levels of electoral fraud conviction in the UK, the scheme will fortify the Conservatives' stronghold and is an expensive distraction from much-needed social reform.
  • Parisa Hashempour is a freelance journalist and International Studies lecturer living in the Netherlands.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

In the UK two weeks ago, the Queen's speech laid out the British government's plans for post-pandemic reform. Rather than deliver on long-awaited changes to social care, protection for women, or rent reform, the Conservative government announced the implementation of an electoral integrity bill.

The government insists that the bill, which will require voters to show photo ID at the polling booth, is being drafted in order to combat voter impersonation. But in a country with extraordinarily low rates of electoral fraud conviction, this brazen lie on the part of the leading Conservative Party is a mimicry of Republican-style voter suppression and an attack on free and fair voting rights.

This photo ID scheme will cost an estimated £20 million ($28.3 million) per general election. For the party, it is money well spent on changes that are a bolster to their rule, openly undermining the voting rights of groups less likely to support the right-leaning party in upcoming elections.

An electoral "reform" bill for Britain

Classed as electoral reform, new changes to the UK's voting system are set to regress rather than progress the country's politics. From 2023, the bill will not only require all voters to show photo ID on election day, but the government will also implement new laws allowing them to choose the date of upcoming elections without a vote in parliament.

Unlike the UK's European neighbors, many citizens do not have personal IDs. Identification cards most often come in the form of driving licenses or passports, both of which holders must pay for, and which around one-quarter of voters in the country do not own. Around 3.5 million citizens have no access to photo ID at all, and despite this, the government plans to introduce measures that prevent those without ID from voting.

While a free form of photo ID will be made available to citizens who need it, trials of the scheme – where prospective voters had to miss work and caring responsibilities to travel to council offices to request their free ID – have highlighted the plan's shortcomings. As the Electoral Reform society points out, "Those that can most easily take time off work to do this are usually the most likely to already have ID. This expensive plan simply makes it harder for some people to vote."

The consequences of this change are clear. In small-scale trials, more than 800 people were turned away from voting. The opposition Labour Party called for trials to be "abandoned immediately", describing them as an attempt to rig elections.

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Undermining democracy

The changes are set to disproportionately harm those who are disabled, elderly, young, and those on low incomes, who are all less likely to have access to photo ID. Organizations protecting these groups, such as the Salvation Army, Age UK, Liberty, and Centrepoint all warn against the new bill. In 2018, they wrote a joint letter dubbing the scheme (which was then in trial) to be a barrier to democracy, writing: "mandatory ID will disproportionately impact the most marginalised groups in society."

A coalition of organizations fighting for racial equality has also spoken out against how the announcement will hurt those from ethnic minority backgrounds. "If the government is truly committed to addressing racial inequality, it must heed warnings of the potentially damaging impact this proposed legislation would have on our communities," reads a joint statement with signatories including Runnymede Trust, Operation Black Vote, Race Equality Foundation, and Trades Union Congress.

Their concern is not without good cause. A recent parliamentary report found that "38% of Asian people, nearly a third of people of mixed ethnicity (31%), and more than half of Black people (48%) do not [hold a driving license]," in the UK. The country's already politically underserved Gypsy Roma Traveller population, of which there are up to 300,000, are also more likely to be deterred from voting.

Even the rights of more privileged voters may be swept up in the bureaucracy. How much time will be spent identifying faces from 10-year-old passports, matching maiden names to married names, and musing over the faces of voters with old, weathered ID card photos that don't quite convince on the day?

This, all on the dubious grounds of fraudulent voting. But the all-too-familiar populist cry of "Voter Fraud!" witnessed in the US just last year is to Britain what the Macedonian army was to Ancient Athens – a ticking time bomb on democracy. As in the UK, attempts to disenfranchise voters in the US are dangerous and ongoing. Even since late March of this year, 361 bills with restrictive voting provisions were introduced across 47 states. This is despite negligible amounts of voter fraud actually taking place in the US. As in the UK, the electoral system is secure and claims of fraud are largely baseless.

Fixing an imaginary problem

"They try to say that they want to protect the integrity of the election, but the reality [is] that our elections have strong integrity," says Sylvia Albert from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Commons Cause. Rather, voter integrity is undermined when the presiding government manipulates the electoral system in order to disenfranchise voters.

Despite UK elections being some of the most secure in the world, the government has claimed reform is necessary to restore faith. However, the Electoral Commission says the UK "has low levels of proven electoral fraud" and, frankly, the statistics speak for themselves – in 2019, there was just one conviction and one police caution.

With so few cases of real crime, the photo ID rule is clearly a charade. It simultaneously appeases right-leaning voters who might conflate voter fraud with the ethnic minority groups they wish to punish, and also makes it more difficult for those less likely to vote for the Conservative party to get their paper ballots in.

With nine million people still missing from the electoral roll, the country has much bigger challenges in ameliorating its voting system, as The Electoral Reform Society argues "There are glaring loopholes in our lobbying laws and online political adverts still don't have to say who paid for them."

Over the past 10 years, the UK has experienced countless welfare cuts, and blow upon blow has landed upon marginalized communities. In short, the country has a whole host of problems – but electoral fraud is not one of them.

With mandatory photo ID for voting, the Conservatives will dig their claws deeper into the British electorate and as such, their grip on power. It's time for politicians to stop promenading the practically non-existent issue of voter fraud, and learn to center their country's people instead of their own party.

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