Yesterday the UK saw a swathe of local and other miscellaneous elections taking place. It’s one of the first occasions Britons have been to the polls en masse since the introduction of the law requiring you to bring certain types of photo ID with you to the polling station in order to be allowed to vote.

This policy was introduced via Boris Johnson’s Conservative government via the Elections Act 2022. So it was rather darkly hilarious to learn that day before the elections were to run, Conservative MP Tom Hunt realised that he had no suitable ID and hence wasn’t going to be able to vote.

The reason we know about this is because someone leaked a Whatsapp message (of course!) where he was asking fellow Tory party members to help him out via being his emergency proxy, a facility designed for people who lose their ID amongst other circumstances, that I’m certain the vast majority of the UK populous doesn’t know about. If they even know about the photo ID requirement in the first place; for such a big change I at least haven’t seen any publicity around it recently.

It later came to light that he suffers from a medical condition called dyspraxia , which is what he attributes his overweight to. Some of the symptoms of that condition include “difficulty with organisation and/or problems with attention, working memory and time management” so it’s perfectly plausible and may make the more vicious commentators of a certain type tone down their output, as tempting an opportunity as it is.

But, as a friend noted, another thing Tom’s situation perfectly demonstrates is why voter ID requirements tend to be bad laws that cause unjust disenfranchisement in the first place.

Back in 2022, Toby James shared six reasons why introducing the voter ID law to Britain was a bad idea.

  1. There is no evidence of voter fraud.
  2. Photographic voter ID could deny legitimate voters
  3. Photo ID discriminates
  4. Voter identification is expensive
  5. The change is happening at too short notice
  6. Other problems need fixing

Some of these seem more serious than others to me - but points 2 and 3 exactly describe the situation with Mr. Hunt. There’s no question he was a legitimate voter. And had he not known about the proxy workaround, or been unable for any reason to use it, he would have been denied his right to vote.

Some research for the government carried out in 2021 put the number of people who say they have no recognisable photo ID they could use was 4%. That might sound low, but as James notes it’s equivalent to 1.9 million potential voters. And that’s just any recognisable photo ID. The proportion of people reporting that they don’t have any recognisable photo ID that hasn’t expired is more than twice that, 9%.

In reality, I’d wager that the number of people who say that they have usable, in-date, photo ID is somewhat higher than the number of people that can actually locate such a thing and remember to provide it at a polling station.

Furthermore, having some kind of disability puts Hunt in one of the many groups that have a higher risk of being prevented from voting than others as a result of this law.

From the same governmental research:

12% of respondents with a severely limiting disability and eight per cent of those with a somewhat limiting difficulty said that having to present photo ID at the polling station would make voting difficult, compared with four per cent of those with no disability.

Some of that relates to their concurrent finding that people with a disability are less likely to have appropriate photo ID in the first place. Other groups that also had lesser rates of having ID include:

  • Older people, especially those who were 85+ years old.
  • Unemployed people.
  • Those with few educational qualifications.
  • Those who haven’t previously voted.
  • People living in certain regions of the UK, e.g. West Midlands, South West and Yorkshire and the Humber.

As ever, it’s perhaps of note that these are different segments of the population that those who typically work in politics or the media.

Younger people aged 18-29 were actually more likely to report having a photo ID than the rest of the population. Although if they were talking about their travelcards then that would be meaningless giving a strange-on-the-surface decision by the government to allow the Oyster travel card issued to 60+ year olds as valid voter ID, but not the Oyster travel card issued to 18+ year old students or the railcards issued to 16-25 year olds. There is an actual reason for this that relates to the differing application processes for the two types of cards which can certainly be discussed - but the survey I’m took the above numbers from certainly didn’t include that nuance.

The Electoral Reform Society has similar concerns. As does the Joseph Rowntree Foundation who, focusing on the economic dimension of privilege, wrote that:

…there is a very real risk that the Government’s Elections Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, will disenfranchise around 1.7 million voters living on a low income.

And note that making available an option to get a “free” photo ID is no panacea:

It’s not easy, or necessarily going to be a priority, to apply to your local authority for a free Voter Card if you’re working in an insecure job with irregular, unpredictable and long hours, or juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet while also managing caring responsibilities and health needs. It’s also much harder to apply for a free Voter Card if you don’t have access to technology, or if previous interactions with your local council or job centre have created a feeling of fear and mistrust of the system.

The same article notes that other organisations such as Crisis, Operation Black Vote and The Runnymede Trust have similar concerns.

In any case, our voter ID law appears to be targeting a basically non-existent problem. Sure, any motivated media organisation will likely be able to find (or conjure up) a handful of individual stories of people that seemingly got away with defrauding the system. But an analysis of elections held in 2019 showed just how rare electoral fraud of the nature this law sets out to reduce seems to be.

As far as I can see from the Electoral Commission’s figures there were a whole 2 people convicted or cautioned for using someone else’s identity in order to vote in a way that this kind of voter ID law could potentially have perhaps prevented. Out of around 58 million votes. Which is not surprising when there are already mechanisms in place to ensure that votes are attributed to real individuals, that the same person can’t vote twice and, let’s face it, you’re going to have to fake-vote a whole lot more than twice to make an meaningful impact on the result of almost any election.

Toby James and Alistair Clark published an analysis of a pilot voter ID initiative that was carried out during some of the 2018-2019 local elections that found that:

Attempted impersonation was exceptionally rare, however, and measures to introduce voter identification requirements therefore had little effect on the security of the electoral process.

Rather, the ID requirements during the pilot:

…led to some voters not casting their ballot, either for reasons of convenience and availability of suitable forms of ID, or reasons of principle and protest.

These laws thus seem to be setting out to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist at meaningful scale, or less charitably, only exists in the minds of a certain type of culture-war-addled populist brain. Instead, in practice it creates a new and real problem that prevents a set of people from exercising their most fundamental fundamental democratic right. Worse yet, the disenfranchisement is likely to be biased particularly against those people who may already be struggling more than the average citizen, have a relative lack of power and privilege, and may thus be particularly affected by the constitution and nature of any elected government.

The real problem the UK has with people’s voting behaviour is not that too many imaginary people vote, but rather that too few real people do. According to research from the House of Commons Library, the turnout at England’s local elections in 2021 - even before voter ID was introduced - was a pretty appalling 35.9%. Nearly two thirds of people who could have voted didn’t vote. Perhaps we should use any available resources to focus on increasing the number of people who see fit to vote, not making it harder to do so for those who are already motivated to do so. Remove the existing barriers, don’t add new entirely unnecessary ones.

Just to finish on a moment of comedy rather than despair, another person who inadvertently (?) turned up to the polling station yesterday without any suitable ID was naturally none other than our former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the very person who presided over the country and the government that put these rules into place in the first place. He is, to be fair, not known for his ability to adhere to rules, even those he himself put in place.