Electoral Reform Society: Government is putting democracy in danger

Fears of foreign interference, the spread of disinformation, unreformed campaign funding rules: there are some very serious threats to democracy in Scotland and UK.

Theresa May's Government is prioritising plans to prevent 'personation', a very rare problem, by introducing measures that will disenfranchise many people (Picture: Matt Dunham/PA Wire)

In the face of all this, you’d think the UK Government would be pledging an overhaul: preventing secret ‘gifts’ to parties, regulating social media giants and forcing campaigns to come clean on how they are using big data. No such luck.

Instead, the Government is quietly pushing plans to force all voters to ‘prove themselves’ at the polling station. The official figures show ‘personation’ is extraordinarily rare – just one case and 28 allegations out of 45 million votes cast last year.

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And yet it is personation which the Government has prioritised. And now we know potentially tens of thousands of people without the required documents could be effectively disenfranchised.

In the first civil society verdict of this May’s trial of the scheme in England, we’ve found that the Government is rearranging the deckchairs – while democracy veers towards an iceberg.

It’s a double hit for democracy: allowing the ‘Wild West’ in online campaigning to become ever wilder, while forcing through a policy that poses real democratic dangers.

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Earlier this year, the Government trialled the policy in five pilot areas. In one of these, Bromley, 154 people were turned away from the polling station and did not return to vote.

Thirteen seats were won at the 2017 General Election with a majority of less than 154. That’s the difference between an absolute majority and a hung parliament for the governing party.

With the Conservative Party just eight seats short of a majority in that vote, turning away electors without ID at the ballot box could have changed the outcome.

In other words, the disenfranchising effect of voter ID could in the future dictate which party is in Number 10 and the policy agenda for the following five years. Needless to say, it is those already on the margins of politics who are hardest hit.

Yet still the Government insists on running more trials of mandatory ID despite a broader commitment to improve democratic engagement and access.

Much work needs to be done to remove barriers to voting, not to construct new ones.

Our report also highlights research which found that nearly all polling station staff who took part in the trials had no suspicion of fraud taking place.

Ninety-nine per cent of staff in the polling stations – those who issue ballot papers and ensure the ballots are secure – did not suspect that any fraud had happened.

We will pay a high price for this: if rolled out nationally, this scheme could cost the taxpayer up to £20 million per general election and make our democracy even more unequal.

The Scottish Government can reject voter ID for local government – but there is still a risk it could be imposed for general elections. We’ll be campaigning strongly against this – and hope politicians across the spectrum join us.

It’s time for the UK Government to abandon these costly, undemocratic plans – and focus on supporting our embattled democracy instead.

Willie Sullivan is director of ERS Scotland. Read the Electoral Reform Society’s new report on voter ID.