As the candidates for the next Prime Minister continue to voice more and more extreme right-wing priorities thats are out of step with the vast majority of Scottish voters, speculation rises that there could be a general election within the next few months. But if that were to happen, almost one in ten voters could be stopped from casting their ballots.
The UK Government’s own research suggests 9% voters don’t have suitable id - that is much higher than was previously thought. Previous estimates were about 2.5%. Low-income and marginal groups are more likely to be affected.
This situation could significantly damage the cause of Scottish independence by unfairly suppressing the vote from areas and groups of people who are more likely to support independence. It could also hand a massive electoral advantage to the Conservatives.
The UK Government forced through the Electoral Act requiring people to present photo id at the polling booth, ignoring the fact the Scottish Parliament did not consent to it and that many experts said it could damage democracy in the UK.
Government phone survey finds 9% without acceptable photo ID
The Cabinet Office commissioned a survey earlier this year that found only 85% of people in the UK have multiple forms of ID. While 91% of respondents said they have a passport, the surveying company pointed out that a phone survey struggles to reach underrepresented groups such as the homeless and even this could be an underestimate.
Voter ID card legislation three months late
Most countries where photo id is demanded at the voting booth also issue free ID cards. The UK does not. The Act said that voting cards would be created and made freely available - but the legislation to create them has been delayed. It is three months behind schedule.
A spokesman for the Department for Levelling Up said : ‘It is the government’s expectation that all the measures in the Elections Act will be implemented during the lifetime of this parliament. The Voter Card system will be in operation in good time ahead of voter identification being required at polls.” He cited earlier research from the survey above, which he claimed showed only 2% of voters without ID.
The Electoral Commission is toothless
The Electoral Commission has written to the new Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Greg Clarke, requesting an urgent meeting. It pointed out that the delay in creating voter ID cards was a cause for concern. But there is nothing the Electoral Commission can do to ensure that the UK’s elections are free and fair.
A spokesperson said: “The Electoral Commission is responsible for enforcing the law, but not for making it”. A report said the Act risks damaging trust in the UK’s electoral system, instead of protecting it.
The Electoral Commission no longer has the power to enforce election law
The Elections Bill also removed the power to prosecute people who break electoral law from the Commission. In future, it will be up to the various police services to decide if a breach of electoral law should be prosecuted. The law also does not allow EU citizens who settled in the UK before Brexit to have a vote in general elections.
The Scottish Parliament is powerless to create voter ID cards
Arrangements for general elections come under the rule of Westminster and so these rules will apply to Scottish voters when they vote on MPs.
The Scottish Government could issue its own cards - but they won’t be recognised at polling stations unless the law says they should be and that power rests with the UK Government, as far as general elections go.
Research shows onerous registration puts voters off
Even if the UK Government does pass the required legislation to create voter ID cards, if people have to go through a bureaucratic process with their local authority, research shows it will put them off voting and reduce turn out.
Over 60s bus passes acceptable - but not matriculation cards
The new law has been criticised for other kinds of unfairness - it accepts over 60s bus passes - but not student id cards or young person railcards or bus passes. Over 60s are significantly more likely to vote against independence and for right wing candidates.
The Wikipedia entry on the Act reads: "The act was criticised for permitting as acceptable voter identification "an Older Person’s Bus Pass, an Oyster 60+ Card, a Freedom Pass", while not allowing 18+ student Oyster cards, national railcards, or student ID cards. An amendment in the House of Lords to list these as accepted forms of voter identification was rejected by the Conservative government.” Legislation to create free voter id cards has been delayed.
There was no significant electoral fraud in the UK
What were the motives for passing this law? Protecting democracy against fraud was given as a reason - but that does not stand up to scrutiny. There is little evidence of serious voter fraud in UK elections. Between 2015 to 2019, during which three general elections were held and 153 million in-person votes cast, only 88 allegations were made of voter fraud. Between 2010 and 2018, there were just two convictions for voter fraud.
A few percentage points can swing a seat
Just a couple of percentage points can make a difference - for example in Moray and in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine the majority for the Conservatives in the 2019 election was under 1,000 votes and in Dumfries and Galloway, Alister Jack's majority was less than 2,000. According to recent polling by Electoral Calculus, all the Conservative MPs Scottish seats are at risk, with the potential for them all to be lost.
In addition, it is likely that the next general election will be fought in Scotland on the single issue of independence. Disenfranchising large swathes of voters could make a significant difference in vote share.
Conclusion - a crime against democracy
It seems clear that the the new Elections Act risks disenfranchising many, many people. If voter ID cards are not made available soon, that number will be even higher. There is a question mark over the reasons for forcing through the elections act. There is no evidence of significant fraud. The Electoral Commission has also been weakened and has no power to enforce rules or to ensure elections are free and fair. Being careless with the votes of the electorate - or deliberately suppressing them is a crime against democracy.