What is the UK Voter ID Bill?
Back in January, UK Ministers confirmed that voters would be required to provide photo ID in order to vote in future general elections as a means to tackle voter fraud. The proposal was met with fierce criticism. The Electoral Reform Society warned the plan could result in ‘disenfranchisement on an industrial scale’, and Shadow Democracy Minister, Cat Smith, likened the move to US Republican-style voter suppression.
Such fears were temporarily quelled when the proposed bill was defeated in the House of Lords earlier this year. But the matter remains on the government’s agenda and will make its way back to the House of Commons, where MPs will vote to accept or reject the Lords’ decision.
The issue remains a divisive one and great debate has taken place both inside and outside the political sphere. This article will highlight the main arguments dominating the discourse and discuss what could happen next.
UK voter fraud - is it a problem?
The main argument for introducing the bill is to tackle voter fraud, raising the question: is voter fraud a problem in the UK? And, if so, just how big of a problem?
The UK electoral commission states that “the UK has low levels of proven electoral fraud.”
In 2021 there were 315 cases of alleged electoral fraud resulting in zero convictions. In 2019 — the most recent general election year — there were just four convictions. With more than 47 million votes cast, this puts the fraud rate at a miniscule 0.000000009%. Labour’s shadow elections minister Alex Norris pointed out that “when we stand in line to vote, we are more likely to be hit by lightning three times than to be queuing behind someone who is committing voter fraud.”
"There were just four convictions of electoral fraud in 2019"
Public faith in the electoral system is currently at its highest levels since data collection began in 2012, with 86% confirming their satisfaction with the voting process.
Statistics conclude that voter fraud is neither an objective nor perceived problem in the UK. So, how are supporters justifying the bill?
Supporters of the bill point to our democratic neighbours for justification — voter ID is a necessity in most European nations. In fact, the UK is an outlier in this regard as the only European country that doesn’t require ID. However, this doesn’t tell the full story, as some countries in mainland Europe provide citizens with a national ID card, which the UK does not.
A more accurate comparison would be with the US, where some states that don’t provide state-issued ID require voters to provide identification in the form of photographic ID such as a driver’s licence or passport. Studies report that these Voter ID laws reduced minority turnout, particularly amongst African Americans.
The Electoral Commission has already voiced concerns about the potential of a similar issue occurring in the UK, with studies revealing that working class, elderly, and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people will be disproportionately impacted by the proposal.
The UK government could be required to provide Voter ID cards free of charge. Even though the ID card would be free of charge, implementation of the bill would cost an estimated £40 million —a significant sum that many have dubbed a waste of taxpayer money. Rising living costs and economic stagnation brought on by the pandemic means government spending is closely inspected by the general public, and many fail to see the need for such spending on a practically non-existent problem.
Disenfranchisement and playing politics
Aside from the concerns surrounding discrimination and questionable public spending, critics of the bill highlight two other major denunciations.
The first is mass disenfranchisement. If successful, this bill could potentially prevent the 2.1 million who lack the necessary ID from voting — a seemingly disproportionate response to an almost non-existent issue.
The second is accusations of playing politics. Those opposed to the bill have labelled it as a partisan project masquerading as an attempt to strengthen democracy. With the bill set to disproportionately impact the working-class, elderly and BAME people — groups that typically vote Labour — some have labelled it a Conservative attempt to weaken their political opponent. Ipsos Mori estimates Labour won 60% of the BAME votes at the 2019 general election. Despite poor showings across the remaining two aforementioned demographics, Labour has traditionally strong ties with the elderly and working-class.
If implemented, Labour could lose access to a significant portion of voters while tipping the scales in favour of the Tories, who are grasping at any possible advantage as their involvement in scandal increase and their popularity plummets.
What's next for the bill?
At this very moment, the proposal is not a major topic of importance for the Tories who are spending most of their time putting out internal fires while dealing with recent by-election losses that signal a potential end to their rule. At the time of writing, Boris Johnson has resigned as Prime Minister and a leadership race is taking place.
However, all politicians plan for the long-term, especially when it concerns retaining power. The next PM faces an uphill battle to piece back together the Conservative reputation and mount a challenge at the next General Election. The Bill could offer some much-needed assistance with the latter and the Conservatives are aware of this.
Once the political storm settles, expect to see the bill make its way back to Commons.
For more resources on the electoral system, head to our UK Politics section.
Edited by Alice Holmstedt Pell