Expert comment: The local elections, voter ID and democracy
Tonight IPPR North will join forces with MetroPolis, Peoples Powerhouse, CLES and Neon to host our first ‘New Economy North’ social event. We will be discussing the May 2023 local elections and exploring what they mean for our democracy.
Last month’s elections saw the introduction of compulsory voter ID with voters now required to show specific forms of photo ID to be allowed to vote in elections. While the government has argued that this is a necessary step aimed at tackling voter fraud experts have questioned the extent to which this is a problem in British politics. Evidence from the Electoral Commission finds that there were no recorded cases of voter impersonation last year.
It is not just that the new voter ID rules are unnecessary, they are in fact damaging for our democracy.
Early evidence from the recent local elections suggests that the voter ID policy will have a negative effect on political participation. Numbers from metropolitan councils in the North and Midlands show that 0.6 per cent of voters were initially turned away for lacking the required ID. Of those turned away, 37 per cent did not return, meaning that 0.2 per cent were unable to vote. This may not sound especially significant as a percentage, yet Jessie Joe Jacobs, director of the Democracy Network and one of our speakers this evening will argue, “one person unable to vote is one too many”.
Moreover, these figures, applied overall to the 2019 general election, would have resulted in 64,000 people across the country being unable to vote. As we look ahead to a likely general election next year, this is extremely worrying and may impact electoral outcomes.
In the context of long-term decline in voter turnout and decreasing levels of trust in our politics, the government choosing to make it even more difficult to participate in the democratic processes is the wrong call. This may be particularly problematic in the north of England, where evidence suggests that many already have more negative perceptions of Westminster politics than those elsewhere, with research by IPPR finding that the further away from Westminster people are within England, the less trust they have in politicians.
A lack of political trust can lead to political disaffection and a lack of participation. While there is variation in turnout across constituencies, at the 2019 general election three out of four of the regions with the lowest levels of turnout in England were those that make up the North – the North East, North West, and Yorkshire and Humber (the other being the West Midlands). Making it more difficult to vote will not improve this.
What’s more, voter ID requirements are likely to impact groups that are already marginalised. This includes those lacking in resources as well as ethnic minorities. In fact, one analysis suggesting that 53 per cent of those turned away for lacking the correct ID were “non-white”. The forms of accepted ID are also seen to provide fewer options for younger voters compared to older ones.
It is estimated by the government that around 2 million citizens may lack a required form of ID to vote under the new rules. While voters can apply for a free form of ID to vote from their local authority, take up of this ahead of the local elections was low. Hard pressed citizens focussed on dealing with a cost-of-living crisis, and who may not be particularly engaged politically, do no need extra hoops to jump through just to be able to vote.
Clearly, all of the evidence shows that the government must reverse its policy on voter ID. It’s a solution to an almost non-existent problem, and it has the potential to cause serious damage to our democracy. Instead, the government must pursue a programme progressive democratic renewal to make democratic participation and the role of citizens in our politics stronger.
Tonight, Jessie Joe Jacobs will argue that “the government could have used the multi millions of pounds they will spend on embedding mandatory photo ID to instead...support initiatives that encourage people to get involved in politics and local decision making.” This, she will argue, could include providing “more support for democracy education, funding citizens assemblies... or even looking to introduce a fairer voting system”.
The government should also be looking at ways in which it can improve the representativeness of political elites, enhance citizen engagement and participation at every level of democracy, and push power closer to people with meaningful and lasting devolution. At its heart, progressive democratic renewal should both improve political accountability and levels of trust and empower citizens.
Ryan Swift is a research fellow at IPPR North. He tweets @RyanSwift93.