Local elections in England last week were marred by voters getting turned away from the polls – or deciding to stay at home because of the new voter ID requirements. This has suppressed voter turnout – as Believe in Scotland predicted.
There is no total figure for voter turnout yet (although many local authorities have published their own turnout figures) but the signs are it will be very low.
The draconian new legislation introduced by the UK Government has serious implications for the General Election in Scotland next year. The UK now has one of the most restrictive photo ID rules in the world – stricter than many US states, which have been accused of voter suppression. Writer Tor Udall tweeted on the day of the vote that she “cried at the polling station this morning as the old lady in front of me, who had struggled to walk there, was turned away. She had photo ID but not the right version”.
For Scotland, this has a special significance as the general election route may be fought on the single issue of independence and losing votes could make the difference between success and failure.
Police officers, nurses, taxi drivers’ ID refused
Among those turned away last week were police officers with warrant cards, nurses with hospital ID cards and taxi drivers with council-issued licence cards. Canvassers said people told them they were not going to go to the polls at all because they didn’t have ID. These people and others turned back by volunteers at the gates of the polling station won’t appear on official counts of turned away voters.
Many seats at the General Election will be won or lost by narrow margins
Holyrood controls the franchise for local elections and elections to the Scottish Parliament but general elections in Scotland will be affected. Reduced turnout by even a couple of percent can make a difference – for example, Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack’s majority in Dumfries and Galloway is less than 2,000. Many seats in Scotland will likely be won or lost by wafer-thin majorities.
Vouching system would prevent impersonation
The UK could use a vouching system like other countries which use voter ID, such as Canada. That would mean that if for instance Jane McDoe, who is listed on the electoral roll as residing at Ground Floor right, 65 Daisy Street, brings her driving licence and confirms her identity, she would then be able to say: “Yes, this is definitely my 18-year-old son James McDoe” or: “I confirm this is my elderly neighbour Ishpreet Singh, of Ground Floor left, 65 Daisy Street” and they would be allowed to vote too.
That would seem sensible. The UK has an address-based system where people are entered on the electoral roll. The only kind of fraud that could happen at the polling booth is someone impersonating a registered voter. If someone on the roll has established their ID, it might seem obvious that they could vouch for the identity of the other people they live with or neighbours. (In fact, there is very little evidence of impersonation at UK elections.)
Potential Solutions to Protect Scotland’s Democracy
The Scottish Government can’t change the law on voter ID for Westminster elections as it is reserved to Westminster. But there are some workarounds. The key one is to encourage more people to apply for postal votes as there is no need for photo ID your vote slip is your proof of ID. These can be hand-delivered to the polling station on election day without the need for ID, as the voting slip was posted to the voter’s address. Worries about postal vote fraud are largely unfounded but voters certainly should not give their postal votes to a political party to deliver for them.
Acceptable forms of ID that are applicable to most people are: a passport, driving licence, or an over-60 travel card. Scotland’s under-22 free travel pass also is on the list. Voters can apply for a local authority voter ID card – local libraries, schools and other local authority centres across Scotland could hold open access sessions to take photos and create voter ID cards for people on the spot. Either way, we need a massive voter registration drive and a make-your-vote-count campaign.
In the US, Democrats are increasingly accepting the requirement for some kind of voter ID but are working to make it more inclusive, such as allowing addressed utility bills to be used and other widely available forms of ID. The Scottish Government should lobby for this to be adopted in Scotland.
Some groups are more equal than others
The independent Electoral Commission, the body tasked with regulating UK elections, released a statement noting that while the elections were well run, “the ID requirement posed a greater challenge for some groups in society, and … some people were regrettably unable to vote today as a result”.
There is no national number for turnout in England’s local elections
The Electoral Commission has not replied to a request for a national turnout figure. Sarah Mackie from the Electoral Reform Society said: “There is no central authoritative source with voter turnout figures for the recent polls in England. We are collecting data from local authorities, including turnout, but that won’t be available for some time as each authority needs to collate and submit a range of data to us which we will need to verify before publication. We expect to publish an initial analysis of voter ID as quickly as possible in the coming weeks, subject to data being available. We will publish a full analysis of the delivery of the May 2023 council elections in England in the autumn of this year. This will include the data from public opinion research with voters in regard to the Voter ID provisions in place at these elections”.
In the absence of an overall turnout figure, those from some of England’s major cities such as Manchester are several percentage points below the previous total. Voter already turnout in the UK is already quite low compared to EU countries. Introducing voter ID seems likely to suppress votes in an unacceptable way.
The Scottish Government must overcome this barrier
Reducing the turnout, by even a few per cent, can make a difference in elections and if that election is being fought as a de facto referendum it could make prove crucial when it comes to generating that crucial 50% of the vote.
This law is a politically motivated attack on the right to vote, the goal of the law is to reduce the voter turnout in socio-demographic groups that don’t vote Conservative. The Scottish government should oppose this law in the strongest possible terms. They can also potentially introduce another photo ID card which offers money off public transport, or another incentive that covers the adult population between 22 and 60, that meets the criteria for inclusion on the list.
Holyrood and local authorities must set a plan in motion now to make sure that as many people as possible know about this problem and how to get around it. The main ways are applying for postal votes or helping people to get a free voter ID card even if the Scottish Government have to create a new form of ID.
Only with independence can Scotland truly make sure that elections continue to be open to all of the population, without unnecessary barriers being placed in the way of people who want to exercise their democratic rights.