Boris Johnson's voter ID plans belie real threats to electoral integrity – Martyn McLaughlin

If recent American history is any guide, a government which is prepared to abandon its commitment to democracy can provide the impetus for malign forces intent on inflicting further harm.

For all the huffing and puffing around the Trumpification of British politics in recent years, the UK government’s pursuit of voter ID legislation is its most brazen attempt yet to copy the Republican playbook, and one which poses a clear and present threat to democratic accountability.

The right to vote does not and should not depend on an individual being required to do anything other than present themselves to exercise that right. This a privilege none of us should take for granted. Equally, we should condemn those who seek to deny it for spurious reasons.

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The devil will be in the detail of the Electoral Integrity Bill, although the Queen’s Speech provided sufficient information to confirm suspicions that elements of this new legislation are not only superfluous, but pernicious, too.

By including the roll-out of mandatory voter ID into the bill, the UK government seems intent on pushing through a highly politicised measure which will further disenfranchise those people on the fringe of society who, as chance would have it, are hardly inclined to support the current party of government.

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To make matters worse, it is doing so under false pretences. Voter ID is neither a necessary nor proportionate step, given the very problem it is designed to address is so negligible it could well be classed as illusory.

The ostensible purpose of the scheme is to combat electoral fraud. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted that it is designed to “protect democracy” and the “transparency and integrity of the electoral process”.

Boris Johnson claims mandatory voter ID will help 'protect democracy' (Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty)

Lofty words, for sure, and all of us want a system that is as fair and robust as it is accessible and inclusive. But when you consider the fact that the average sheriff court is more likely to hear a case involving someone charged under the Licensing Act of 1872 with being drunk in possession of a cow, such remarks are revealed as cynical and obfuscatory bluster.

In 2019, there were just 33 allegations of ‘personation’, the offence of pretending to be someone else while casting a vote. There was just one conviction, and a single caution. Indeed, data compiled by the House of Commons Library shows that between 2015 and 2019, there were just three convictions for personation, and six cautions.

Of course, these are not the statistics that are of interest to the Conservatives. Instead, their focus is on the millions of people who do not have a photographic driving licence or passport, a vast group which is likely to disproportionately impact those people in poverty and minority communities.

In a pilot scheme of voter ID checks across 10 areas during the local elections in England in 2019, around 2,000 people were turned away at polling stations for a lack of ID. Out of those, some 750 failed to return with ID to vote. These are not huge numbers, but they are not insignificant either.

The precise number of people across the UK impacted by the move will not become known until the UK government sets out which forms of ID it deems acceptable or otherwise, but it is estimated that around 300,000 people in Scotland lack any form of photo ID.

If the bill is ratified – and given the size of the Tory majority is large enough to see off a rebellion from some of its more libertarian MPs, that looks like a foregone conclusion – those voters would be required to show identification when having their say in future Westminster elections, although they would not be bound by such a condition when voting for MSPs at Holyrood.

Given a significant proportion of the public could be forgiven for not being conversant with the minutiae of the electoral process, the dangers of this divergent approach should be self-evident. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that various election cycles could dovetail, causing considerable confusion for voters.

It may be that the UK government is mindful of such difficulties, although given the fact Mr Johnson mistakenly claimed on national television that the ID scheme would only apply to first-time voters, it might be best to reserve judgement.

Either way, compelling citizens to have ID is, quite literally, a vote winner for Mr Johnson, despite the fact he once denounced the Labour government’s proposed ID card scheme as a “costly and illiberal mistake”.

The outrage has been felt most keenly on the left, but the truth is that it raises wider questions which ought to trouble society as a whole. What becomes of our society if the way in which democracy is delivered leaves people feeling excluded? And what will be the long-term impact on turnout if the perception that the party in power is manipulating the system?

In the US, civil rights groups have repeatedly warned that any steps taken to supposedly protect the electoral system has the paradoxical effect of sowing mistrust in it. Voter ID, a form of voter suppression, does precisely that.

If the UK government was in any way serious about electoral integrity, it would drop the red herring and focus instead on the myriad abuses which risk undermining it.

From the dark money which bankrolls increasingly influential digital and social media political advertising, to the recent registration of the far-right Independent Green Voice party in Scotland, the gravest threats to the democratic process are not hard to find.

Then there is the deep-rooted problem of perceptions of voter fraud, with large swathes of the public convinced it is an issue. One of the most startling findings in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum came via an Electoral Commission survey which showed 34 per cent of people believed fraud had taken place.

Tackling these problems requires political will. Sadly, that comes second best to political expediency.

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