Britain is ‘gambling its democracy’ with voting changes, warn experts

If you are reading from mainland Europe, where it is common to hold an official government-issued ID card, this may seem strange.

But new rules requiring Britons to prove their identity before they can vote are whipping up quite a storm, with experts warning the country’s very democracy is under threat.

Branded the “biggest” electoral overhaul in a generation, the source of contention is the 2022 Elections Act, which had made it a legal requirement to show a valid form of photo ID, such as a passport or driver’s licence, ahead of local elections in May.

Those elections in England, with thousands of seats up for grabs in district councils, unitary authorities, and directly-elected mayors, are a crucial test for Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government. 

“There’s a huge chance that people won’t turn up with an ID on the day because they’re not aware of the changes,” said Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society.

“People will simply be disenfranchised by accident,” she told Euronews. 

And, up to a quarter of voters – some 12 million people – are currently unaware that they’ll need photo ID before they can vote next month, Garland claimed. 

In a country without compulsory IDs, a concern for election day on 4 May is that many British people don’t normally carry any photo identification around with them, and won’t be able to prove they are who they say the are. 

‘Real and grave risks’

Added to this are pointed concerns the new rules will shut out younger, poorer, disabled or ethnic minority voters, who are less likely to possess such documents, which themselves can only be obtained after getting over significant financial and administrative hurdles.

“No one should face barriers to voting because of being on a low income,” Daisy Sands, Head of Campaigns at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said in a statement sent to Euronews. 

She said there was “a very real risk” that the new law would leave “millions of voters living on low incomes unable to vote.”

“We should be encouraging people to vote not making it more difficult, particularly when those living on low incomes are already less likely to vote.” 

Government research suggests close to 2 million voters do not possess photo ID with a recognisable picture of them, as required by the changes. 

Several organisations have accused the Conservatives of a form of gerrymandering, erecting electoral obstacles for socio-economic groups who may tend to vote for the left.

However, Garland, from the Electoral Reform Society, pushed back against this.

“Certainly, some people have raised concerns… but there are lots of groups right across society who could potentially be disenfranchised. If it was aimed at gerrymandering, it’s very misplaced.”

“We just don’t know who is going to be affected”.

‘A big unknown’

With its first past the post system, many seats in the UK are won on wafer-thin majorities, meaning even if only a handful of voters are turned away it could still have a significant impact on the next government.

“Even if one voter is turned away, it’s one too many in a democracy,” Garland told Euronews. 

Westminister has defended the changes, saying it is necessary to prevent fraud and ensure the integrity of elections.

“In order to have absolute confidence in the ballot, I think saying you need some form of ID … is a reasonable thing to request,” said Crime and Policing Minister Chris Philip on Sky News earlier this week. 

“There are 20 forms of ID that are acceptable,” he said. Those include passports, driving licences and various different travel cards.   

The minister also cited the example of Northern Ireland, where a longstanding voter ID system was introduced owing to historical electoral abuse by sectarian groups. 

Nevertheless, there is no evidence of large-scale fraud in Britain, with only nine convictions since 2018, according to the Electoral Commission

Tens of millions of votes have been cast in three sets of elections, including a general election, during this time. 

“Every voter is going to be affected by this, it [the response] just doesn’t seem proportionate,” said Garland. “Why risk all this disruption and the difficulty over a problem that doesn’t seem to be based in reality?”

For those without ID, there is the option of applying for a free voter ID document, known as a Voter Authority Certification.

Only about 10,000 people have applied for this document since the scheme opened, representing just 0.5% of the total who might need it, according to the Guardian

Though already ruled out, Garland called on officials to offer more alternatives, citing the US voting system where people can vouch for the identity of others. 

“In an international context, we’ve ended up with one of the most restrictive voter ID policies,” she said. 

Public confidence in elections is very high in the UK, with 80% of the population believing they are well run in 2021.

While recognising that a lot depends on what happens on the day, Garland warned the changes could undermine confidence in voting processes and, in turn, confidence in the results.

“We are taking a huge risk with democracy,” she said. “People need to feel that whatever the result, the election was well run and fair.”

“There’s a lot at stake.”

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