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Politics

Voter ID plans could stop a million people from voting, say MPs

Ministers have not come up with enough evidence to prove the voter ID proposals are justified, a committee said.

MPs want the government to scrap voter ID plans, saying it has failed to justify the proposed changes to how people take part in elections.

Ministers’ case for making voters show photo ID at polling stations has “simply not been good enough”, according to the public administration and constitutional affairs committee.

Under the Elections Bill – currently making its way through parliament – members of the public would not be able to cast a vote in elections without having documentation to prove who they are.

But there have only been four convictions for voter impersonation fraud in the past decade.

Labour previously accused the prime minister of trying to “choose the voters” through the new legislation, warning it could make it more difficult for homeless, elderly and low-income people to vote. The cross-party committee also heard that a voter ID requirement could shut out disabled people, transgender and non-binary people, and people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

“While seeking to secure UK elections from potential voter fraud is a noble cause, we remain unconvinced that the scale of the problem justifies the solutions as they have been put forward,” said Conservative MP William Wragg, committee chair.

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The bill would affect UK-wide elections, local elections in England, and Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales.

A voter ID requirement was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2003, resulting in a 2.3 per cent drop in turnout the following year. The government should expect a similar effect across the UK if the current proposals are passed into law, MPs warned, potentially locking one million people out of casting their votes.

“When people can be blocked from voting because they have incorrect documentation, have misplaced it or they have none, we must make double sure that the costs of the measures are commensurate with the risk.”

Photo ID such as passports and driving licences are costly – and still taking months to be processed as a result of a pandemic backlog – and often unattainable for disadvantaged people. 

The government proposes free photo ID cards to be distributed via local authorities, but has not provided clear details of how this would operate within already stretched councils or how it would be funded. Previous government estimates said this could cost an extra £20m per general election.

The ease with which people can vote in UK elections, and the trust shown in the electoral system, is “an admirable and crucial tenet of our democratic process” which should be “cherished and protected”, according to the report.

The government plans triggered a number of campaigns and petitions to stop the legislation in its tracks, including the Hands Off Our Vote initiative.

“An extra half hour of bureaucratic nonsense makes it that much harder to go and vote and could easily mean hundreds of thousands miss out on their chance to have a say,” founder Freddie Mallinson told The Big Issue. 

“I just don’t see the justification or rationale without concluding they’re passing a law they believe will benefit them and their political careers.

“This law disgusts me on every level.”

The Elections Bill lacks evidence and transparency and was not given thorough public consultation, the MPs’ report said. “We cannot risk any reduction of trust in UK elections, which is why the majority of the committee is calling for the bill to be paused to give time for more work to be done to ensure the measures are fit for purpose,” Wragg added. 

MPs also warned against changes in the bill which would give the government more power over the elections watchdog. The proposals would allow ministers to decide its priorities – something Electoral Commission chair John Pullinger said would be “inconsistent” with the body’s purpose.

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“Any government proposal which might directly or indirectly influence the independent regulator over its operations and decision-making will invite suspicion, especially when plans have been drawn up behind closed doors,” Wragg said.

We should not be “complacent” when it comes to “ensuring our democratic process remains secure”, a spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said in response to the report.

“Our Elections Bill will stamp out the potential for voter fraud, and will bring the rest of the UK in line with Northern Ireland.

“The UK government will be providing additional funding to cover the costs of implementing our reforms, and voters who do not have one of the required forms of photographic ID can apply for a free local Vote Card.”

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