This week the Cabinet Office launched its call for councils to join a second-round of voter ID pilots, due to take place in next May’s elections.
Ministers are keen to frame the last attempt a success. For the Cabinet Office, 350 people being disenfranchised is a success, while just 28 allegations of ‘personation’ fraud in 2017 necessitates sweeping electoral change.
What the government recognised is that the five areas in which voter ID was trialled this year were too similar, all based in south England.
The plea for more councils states they are “looking to take forward pilots in authorities representing a diverse range of relevant socio-economic and demographic conditions and different types of areas”.
It’s a welcome intention, given – as the Electoral Commission has noted – May’s trials failed to show already marginalised groups would not be disenfranchised.
Yet even if more diverse councils participate, further trials at local elections will give little insight into the impact voter ID might have in general elections – in which turnout would be higher and broader.
Constitution minister Chloe Smith’s appeal for council involvement in LGC shows the government is wearing blinkers over the subject. This mistake is evident in her description of voter ID as a “simple requirement”.
While producing a passport or driving licence might be simple for many, it is more complicated for others. Ministers would be wise to remember the plight of those of the Windrush generation threatened with deportation.
Also misguided is the continued comparison to Northern Ireland where the minister notes “there is no evidence that [voter ID] has affected the numbers who vote”.
What she fails to mention is that in Northern Ireland, a free electoral identity card has been offered since 2002. And before mandatory voter ID the province experienced huge levels of documented, in-person electoral fraud.
The situation is different in the rest of the UK. As FullFact noted: “In a single day across five councils [this May], twice as many people didn’t vote due to having incorrect ID, as have been accused of personation in eight years in the whole of the UK.”
The Cabinet Office claims its push for mandatory ID has been “smooth running” so far. Even if that were the case, it is easy to run something smoothly if millions of pounds are being poured in. At a cost of up to £20m per general election, voters may begrudge this costly experiment.
Yet after years of cut-backs, council electoral offices could be excused for wanting funding to improve democratic engagement – not having their workloads further stretched to undermine it.
With so many pressing challenges for our democracy – from fake news to lack of campaign regulations – these trials are a dangerous distraction.
Darren Hughes, chief executive, Electoral Reform Society