Why voter ID is terrible for democracy
It’s about race, class and power.
John Arthur Brown/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News
British politics, even in pre-pandemic times, was noisy, melodramatic and unfocused. Now in the middle of the pandemic, even for its closest observers, following British politics is a disorientating experience. In the maelstrom, it's all too easy for the stories and policy changes that impact us the most to be missed. One such story which has been drowned out is Boris Johnson's government's plans to introduce photo voter ID for future elections in the UK. This is something that everyone, even those who feel like politics is an endless psychodrama that isn't worth getting too invested in, should care about. We're on the verge of some of our democratic rights being eroded. Why? In short: the government wants to create a cost of entry to our democratic processes, protect and conserve their power, ultimately to ensure another decade of Conservative rule.
Firstly it's important to establish the fact that the government is legislating against a problem that does not exist. Matt Hancock, the (now ex-) Health Secretary and a senior member of the government, recently admitted that there were only six cases of voter fraud at the last general election. There's more evidence voter fraud is not a problem in the UK. In the 2017 general election, there was only one conviction for multiple amongst the millions of ballots cast across the country.
But what is the public perception around this 'issue'? While from time to time, you may hear people use the argument: "I have to use an ID when I'm going on holiday" or some variation, the polling around it generally paints a picture that most people in this country are confident that the elections are run fairly. According to the electoral commission, 80% of adults surveyed were confident that UK elections are run well, and 86% satisfied with the process of voting. So why, when there's no problem and no clear public discontent with the way our elections are currently run, is the government pushing ahead with the introduction of photo ID? It's about race, class and power.
The government's logic is that the most economically and socially marginalised groups in society are more likely to vote for progressive parties. These groups are statistically least likely to have photographic ID and so will be excluded from voting. According to the electoral commission, a staggering 3.5 million people do not have any form of photo ID, and a further 11 million people do not have a driver's license or passport. The impact will not be equally felt; only 53% of Black people and 61% of Asian people over the age of 17 in the UK have a driver's license compared with 77% of white people, according to data from the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). These communities are also most likely to vote for the Labour Party and other progressive parties in elections.
The government is taking a leaf out of the Republican Party's book, a party with a long history of voter suppression. Decade after decade, since the formal abolition of slavery in the USA, the Republican Party has deployed a range of techniques to deprive African Americans, particularly those in the south, of their voting rights. In the USA, African Americans are a voting bloc with the power to shift elections. Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election was driven by the Black vote, as was the historic win of the Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who received support from 92 and 93% of Black voters to secure Democratic control of the Senate. That wouldn't have been possible without the historic turnout of Black voters driven by the sustained efforts of campaigners like Stacey Abrams.
“The picture from research is clear: the UK in the coming decades is projected to grow more ethnically diverse, and this will no doubt, as it has in the US, reshape the political landscape powerfully. The introduction of voter ID may be a means of reducing this impact.”
The picture from research is clear: the UK in the coming decades is projected to grow more ethnically diverse, and this will no doubt, as it has in the US, reshape the political landscape powerfully. The introduction of voter ID may be a means of reducing this impact. Following the Democrats success in Georgia back in January, the Republican-controlled state is now planning on introducing a range of sweeping voter restriction bills targeted at African American communities and designed at limiting the new electoral impact that Black voters are having in flipping the once solidly Republican state into a marginal one.
Where does this fit into the wider vision of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party? It's important to understand that as much as the government's 80 seat majority gained in the 2019 general election is indicative of its capability to pass legislation, we are still seeing challenges to their power. While the Conservatives are solidly in power in the arena of electoral politics, the power of popular social movements is growing.
2020 was the year of global Black Lives Matter protests and the emergence of demonstrations all across the UK. In recent years, the climate movement has significantly shifted public opinion on climate change in favour of increased action by the government. As young people, we are increasingly politically engaged on a range of issues, and this will continue to have an electoral impact. The government's Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, which carries up to a 10-year prison sentence for the organisers of protests they deem unnecessary, as well as plans to ban the teaching of anti-capitalism in schools, are also designed to fight back against the movement for social, environmental and racial justice.
So how do we fight back? I think it's about building a compelling narrative and forming coalitions to unify different groups to fight together against the introduction of voter ID. We need to establish two key points: voter fraud is a non-existent issue, and by creating a financial barrier to voting, the government is depriving the most marginalised -- by race and class -- from participating in elections. We need to form a coalition from politicians in progressive parties to civil society groups to pressure the government into dropping the voter ID proposals. I get why some young people feel increasingly cynical about voting and don't feel like their participation would have a meaningful impact, but here is an issue that affects everyone. As the Electoral Reform Society puts it, this is “disenfranchisement on an industrial scale”.