The government is making it harder to vote. As of 4 May, when local elections take place in some parts of England, and in all British elections after that, everyone who votes at a polling station will have to show photographic proof that they are who they say they are. Some have made the comparison with voter suppression in the US, where Republicans impose onerous ID requirements to keep the vote down among those least likely to have suitable documents – namely the poor, who are assumed to lean Democrat. But the new British law is harsher than any American one. In the US, people who turn up at a polling place without the right ID can still cast a provisional vote, which poll clerks are obliged to count if the voter later manages to prove their identity. Here, if you don’t have the right photo ID on the day, that’ll be it: no vote.
When the government of a democracy puts a new obstacle in the way of citizens exercising their fundamental democratic right, it ought to have compelling reasons. Does Britain’s? The obvious justification for introducing photo ID at elections would be to tackle a wave of impersonation, people turning up at polling stations trying to pass themselves off as somebody else in order to steal their vote. But even those in favour of the new measure admit no such problem exists. A 2014 report by the Electoral Commission arguing in favour of voter ID – which the organisation continues to back – conceded that ‘there is no evidence to suggest that there have been widespread, systematic attempts to undermine or interfere with recent elections through electoral fraud.’
Although it seems longer ago, given we’re on our third prime minister since then, the last general election was in 2019. That vast, logistically intricate exercise in deciding the people’s will, an effort dependent on trust and personal integrity, showed how well the system works. In West Yorkshire, a man tried to vote twice, once in his own name and once in his son’s. He was given a twelve month suspended sentence, a £50 fine and barred from voting until 2024. His was the only conviction for polling station impersonation that year, and his crime wasn’t committed in the general election vote, but in the dead rubber of the final British election of MEPs. A man in the Midlands was cautioned for a similar offence. Tens of millions of honest votes, two impersonators. The Conservatives fought and won the general election on a manifesto pledging to take action against a statistically meaningless problem.
The 2014 Electoral Commission report, signed off on by its then chair, Jenny Watson, is written in an odd key. Rather than enumerating, in bureaucratic, quantitative terms, the scale of the danger that voter ID is supposed to head off, it deals in hearsay and rumour. It names sixteen English electoral fraud hotspots, but doesn’t say, as at least one newspaper (the Times) reported it did, that these are places where electoral fraud has been shown to take place. It says they’re places where people are more likely to say they think it’s happening – where, in the report’s words, there appears to be ‘a greater risk of cases of alleged fraud being reported’.
Who are the people who suspect foul play, and whom do they suspect, and why? The commission hasn’t made public the identities or comments of its respondents in these sixteen areas – Birmingham, Bradford, Calderdale, Derby, Kirklees, Pendle, Slough, Walsall, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Coventry, Hyndburn, Oldham, Peterborough, Tower Hamlets and Woking – but the report candidly summarises their presumptions. ‘We have heard some strongly held views,’ the report states, ‘based in particular on reported first-hand experience by some campaigners and elected representatives, that electoral fraud is more likely to be committed by or in support of candidates standing for election in areas which are largely or predominately populated by some South Asian communities, specifically those with roots in parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh.’
The explicitness of the references to race in the official discourse around the implementation of voter ID is unusual for British politics. The ground for this was well prepared by the delighted outrage of the right at the fact that the two most prominent electoral fraud cases of recent times, in Birmingham and the London borough of Tower Hamlets, combined two of their favourite topics: Labour Party infighting and malfeasance by British Muslims. Both cases were heard by the barrister Richard Mawrey, sitting as election commissioner, a man not shy of expressing strong opinions and with a knack for the headline-friendly phrase. In the Birmingham case, in 2005, Mawrey found six Labour councillors guilty of organising thousands of fraudulent votes in local elections, describing it as ‘electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic’. In 2015, Mawrey removed the mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, from office – he’d already been expelled from the Labour Party – and barred him from running for election for five years, on the basis that he had been elected with the help of corrupt and illegal practices. Mawrey also ordered Rahman to pay legal costs of £250,000.
Rahman came to London with his family from Bangladesh as a child, and people of Bangladeshi descent constitute his electoral base. Tower Hamlets is a borough without an ethnic majority: everyone is a minority there, though Bangladeshis, at just over a third of the population, edge out white British people, at 23 per cent. In his 200-page judgment Mawrey took steps to avoid accusations of Islamophobia, declaring that ‘the real losers in this case are the citizens of Tower Hamlets and, in particular, the Bangladeshi community. Their natural and laudable sense of solidarity has been cynically perverted into a sense of isolation and victimhood, and their devotion to their religion has been manipulated – all for the aggrandisement of Mr Rahman.’
If Mawrey aimed to avoid impugning Bangladeshis and Muslims in general, however, it’s not easy to see why he chose, at the end of his judgment, to make a veiled but clear link between electoral wrongdoing in London and the conviction of several groups of predominantly Asian men in other parts of England for sexually abusing young white girls, whose complaints had not at first been taken seriously by police. ‘Events of recent months in contexts very different from electoral malpractice,’ Mawrey said, ‘have starkly demonstrated what happens when those in authority are afraid to confront wrongdoing for fear of allegations of racism and Islamophobia.’ (Rahman, who was re-elected last year after his term of electoral banishment expired, complained he’d been the victim of paranoid Islamophobic zeal, in the same way as the teachers in the Birmingham Trojan Horse hoax.)
In response to the Tower Hamlets case, the then prime minister, David Cameron, asked his ‘anti-corruption champion’, Eric Pickles, to look into electoral fraud. The subsequent report acknowledged its debt to Mawrey – ‘the judgment of Richard Mawrey QC was one of the reference points for this review,’ Pickles wrote. But he already had strong views on Tower Hamlets: in 2014, as Cameron’s secretary of state for communities and local government, he’d taken over the running of the council, accusing Rahman of operating a cronyist regime. Labour backed Pickles. When the Pickles report came out in 2016 the media immediately picked up on its references to ‘pressure being put on vulnerable members of some ethnic minority communities, particularly women and young people, to vote according to the will of the elders, especially in communities of Pakistani and Bangladeshi background’, and blind eyes being turned by state institutions ‘because of “politically correct” over-sensitivities about ethnicity and religion’.
Pickles made fifty recommendations. Only one concerned voter ID, and then vaguely: ‘the government,’ he wrote, ‘should consider the options.’ Still, it was this point that the Electoral Commission leaped on when it responded to the report, saying the government had already waited too long to act on voter ID. When Munira Mirza and Rachel Wolf wrote the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 campaign, voter ID was the most specific of the three pledges made under the rubric ‘protect the integrity of democracy’.
And yet the events that propelled voter ID from policy to implementation had almost nothing to do with people impersonating others at polling stations, the thing voter ID is supposed to stop. The Birmingham saga of 2005 did involve the organised misappropriation and misuse of thousands of votes – but although in election jargon this was technically ‘personation’, it involved postal votes. Mawrey’s ‘banana republic’ remark dates from the free and easy era of postal voting, brought in by Labour in 2001 to try to raise turnout when it seemed citizens had become so delightfully bored with politics that they just couldn’t be bothered to vote. The rules for getting and using a postal ballot, and for getting on the electoral register, have been tightened since then, and are to be tightened more.
Although Mawrey found some evidence of false registration and tampering with postal votes in Tower Hamlets, his judgment only cited one or two possible cases of impersonation at a polling station. The burden of his case against Rahman was different, a nice construction of old laws and stretched ties of agency. Rahman may have been an inadequate mayor, his mono-ethnic, patriarchal, paternalistic, overwhelmingly male leadership team a mirror image of a Tory cabinet of the 1950s, but many of those unversed in electoral law, and familiar with the antics of national governments down the years, would be surprised to know that a judge can remove an elected politician from office on the basis that he steers public funds to the groups who vote for him, unfairly brands his opponent a racist and tries to get believers to back him as the godly thing to do.
The Electoral Commission, and the government, argue that voter ID is necessary because, under the old system, it was easy to turn up at a polling station, pretend to be someone you’re not, and vote. As other avenues for electoral fraud are closed off, they argue, fraudsters could turn to in-person personation instead. The meagre evidence for polling station personation doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, only that people aren’t being caught. How realistic is this? I tried to imagine myself hacking a parliamentary constituency for an established political party: how would I work it? There are a handful of seats where a few hundred votes would swing the result, but how to get them? The bigger the conspiracy, the higher the stakes if any conspirator gets caught. You might be able to identify dead people whose names were still on the electoral register, and vote as if you were them, but it would be a tough project to scale up, with a high risk of being nabbed. A safer way would be to use your party credentials to acquire, legitimately, a copy of the version of the electoral register known as the ‘marked register’, which shows who did and did not vote in each election. By dint of an enormous amount of tedious trawling through lists from successive elections, you might be able to identify several hundred people who are registered but never vote. A typical constituency has about sixty polling stations. If my imaginary crooked local party branch were to recruit 25 villains, each of whom voted in twelve different polling stations on election day under the name of twelve serial non-voters, you would get three hundred votes. But why go for such a laborious, complex, high-risk scheme, when putting the same effort into legal campaigning might get you the same number of extra votes?
It’s much easier to foresee ways voter ID will reduce the public’s trust in election integrity, which is high at the moment, and deprive large numbers of people of their vote, than it is to imagine how to game the system significantly in its absence. The government’s own research suggests that about two million registered British voters, out of a total of around 49,000,000, don’t have any of the forms of photo ID recognised by the new rules, most of which cost money; of these potentially excluded voters, more than 800,000 say they’re unlikely to apply for the free Voter Authority Certificate (just a piece of paper with a photo and a serial number printed on it) which registered voters can get online to allow them to vote. If there’s a campaign to promote these certificates, and the rule change in general, it’s barely visible. And these numbers don’t include the many people who have photo ID but won’t have it with them on the day. During a trial of voter ID across ten constituencies in 2019, the election observer organisation Democracy Volunteers came across a presiding officer at one polling station forced to turn away a voter he’d known for 35 years because the man wasn’t carrying a likeness of his own face. In the trial as a whole, they found that ethnic minority voters were disproportionately affected.
One of the points the Conservatives make in favour of voter ID – oddly, in light of their recent history – is how keen people are on it in Europe, and how worried the Europeans are about the laxity of Britain’s in-person voting rules. They tend to underplay the fact that Britain is the only country in Europe, apart from Denmark, not to have a national ID card – partly as a result of libertarian Tory intransigence when Labour wanted to bring one in. Numerous ways have been suggested for the government to make ID-ing voters at polling stations less onerous, and, as tabulated by Doug Cowan of the Electoral Reform Society, the government has rejected them all: the Pickles review’s idea of asking voters for their date of birth or national insurance number, or their signature, or a bank card; ID you can use to pick up a parcel from the Post Office, like a trade union card, a birth or marriage certificate or a utility bill; polling cards with barcodes. The government decided that if you’re a police officer, you can’t use your police ID card; if you work for the NHS, you can’t use your NHS ID card.
Suspicion that the government is trying to use voter ID to skew results the Conservatives’ way has been fed by the evident bias in the list of acceptable photo ID towards the elderly and away from the young. Any passport or driving licence is acceptable, and so is an older person’s bus pass. But not a student photocard or a 16-25 railcard. Of two physically identical Oyster cards – the travel passes used in London – the one issued to over-sixties can be used for photo ID; the one issued to students can’t. In the absence of a plausible explanation, the list of acceptable ID seems to be a clumsy effort to favour the older, Conservative-tending voter at the expense of the younger and more Labour-inclined. What stands out about the voter ID saga as a whole, however, is not its repressive aspect but its shoddiness, its carelessness. To the extent that he asked for change from the top, Mawrey wasn’t seeking voter ID: he wanted a reconsideration of the rickety edifice of arcane electoral law, clearer guidance and better options for election officials and the police, and an easier path for citizens and parties to challenge questionable practices. Implicitly, he wanted more resources, to redesign the framework and investigate electoral wrongdoing in the few places it was alleged to be happening. He was fobbed off with the slipshod, cheap (for central, but not local government) imposition of a national solution to a barely existing problem.
Citing the example of Northern Ireland, where it’s been in operation since 1985, the academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg said in 2018 that ‘voter ID is unlikely to reduce the incidence of electoral fraud in Great Britain, which is anyway not widespread. While there have been several high-profile cases of electoral fraud, these have overwhelmingly involved postal or proxy votes, not personation at polling stations.’
At the 2005 Birmingham electoral fraud trial, with Mawrey presiding, Ravi Sukul, the lawyer for a group of petitioners, described the moment police came across an episode of nocturnal ballot-rigging. ‘You attend a deserted warehouse in the middle of the night,’ he said. ‘Six Asian men sitting in a room by themselves at a grand table with 275 ballot papers on the table, and one about to leave. The amount of cloak and dagger inferences there are enough to develop the suspicions of the police officers.’ There was alleged wrongdoing in the Birmingham election; it needed to be investigated; the accused happened to be Asian; the lawyer accusing them was Asian; many of those angry that their votes had been stolen were also Asian. None of this explains why Sukul thought it was fine to include the fact that the six men were Asian on his list of ‘cloak and dagger inferences’, as if they were nefarious by virtue of their ethnicity. The introduction of voter ID was a result of this delicate, toxic intertwining of crime and prejudice, but will do nothing to ameliorate it.
In its report on the 2022 election in Tower Hamlets, which saw Rahman’s astonishing comeback, Democracy Volunteers commented on high levels of ‘family voting’ (sometimes prevented by polling staff), where women were led to the polling booth by men, who stood over them, or gave instructions, while they voted. Democracy Volunteers observed exactly the same behaviour, on the same day, in the elections in Northern Ireland. A year earlier, the observers had noted family voting in Scotland, where 16 and 17-year-olds can vote, and often had their parents with them. This matters: it’s a secret ballot, and officials should step in to protect that secrecy. But as I was reading the Democracy Volunteers reports I found I was interrogating myself about the way I would have taken these experiences in isolation, not sensitised, as I am now, having written this piece. Would my heart have sunk, in Tower Hamlets? Would my heart have sunk in Northern Ireland, or would I have wryly shaken my head, and why the difference? Would my heart have sunk in Scotland, or would I have been touched by the sight of these fresh teenage voters appealing to a parent for advice? Examining the source of these differences also matters.
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