UK Government photo ID plan will disenfranchise 100,000 Scots - and may reduce turnout for Indyref 2

The House of Lords is currently considering the Elections Bill which would disenfranchise about 2.5% of the electorate by requiring everyone to bring a passport, driving licence or similar photo ID to the polling station. 

This week, the Electoral Commission wrote a strongly-worded public letter to the Government warning that the BIll’s plans for direct Government oversight of political spending and election rules would undermine trust in the electoral system.

The potential effect of introducing voter ID is that more than a million voters across the UK could be turned away from the polling stations at the next general election. The Scottish Government can make sure these rules don’t apply at council and Holyrood elections - but Westminster sets the rules for its contests, and so as many as 100,000 Scottish voters would likely to be disenfranchised. (With the uncertainty over the future of PM Boris Johnson, there is a possibility of another UK General Election before indyref2.) 

People who face the humiliation of being turned away once may be reluctant to try again. They may not realise there are different rules for different contests in Scotland. They make become less likely to vote, and they may even drop off the electoral roll. That could affect turnout in the Referendums (Scotland) Bill soon to be passed by the Scottish Parliament. 

Voter ID targets disadvantaged groups - official photo ID costs money

Research shows it is more likely to be disadvantaged groups who are affected - the young, the disadvantaged, those who can’t afford photo ID. A passport costs a minimum of £75 and a provisional driving licence £35 - sums of money that people feeling the squeeze through benefit cuts, inflation and energy costs won’t be able to find. And these groups are of course less likely to vote Conservative. 

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 seats are at risk, with the potential for them all to be lost if the current polling was replicated across the country at a general election. 

A robust, address-based system - no evidence of significant fraud

The UK has a robust, address-based system, where experienced teams tick off names against addresses in a small area around each polling centre. Electoral officers are alert for unusual activity - many names against a small flat for example - and there is very little evidence of voter fraud. That's why many commentators believe the real motivation for the bill is to suppress turnout. 

A House of Commons committee has expressed strong concerns about the Elections Bill. It said that the Bill risks damaging trust in the UK’s electoral system, instead of protecting it. There was not enough public consultation or scrutiny of the proposals before bringing in the legislation

The report said: “When the requirement to produce photographic identification at polling stations was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2003, the turnout at the 2004 Northern Ireland Assembly elections dropped by 2.3% as a direct consequence. The introduction of the voter ID requirement will remove an element of the trust inherent in the current system between state and individual, and make it more difficult to vote. We are concerned that the evidence to support the voter ID requirement simply is not good enough. It is likely that it will reduce turnout for future elections.” 

The Electoral Commission's  Letter 

In a strong letter this week, representatives of the Electoral Commission across the four UK nations expressed deep concern about the Elections Bill, saying that its provisions go against the principles of democracy are not found in any other comparable democratic country. 

The Bill also gives the UK Government a direct role in overseeing the work of the Commission, setting political funding rules and regulating their opponents.

The letter said: “It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement – enabling the Government to guide the work of the Commission – is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy. This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.

“If made law, these provisions will enable a government in the future to influence the Commission’s operational functions and decision-making. This includes its oversight and enforcement of the political finance regime, but also the advice and guidance it provides to electoral administrators, parties and campaigners, and its work on voter registration...

“The Statement has no precedent in the accountability arrangements of electoral commissions in other comparable democracies, such as Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Indeed, the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission, of which the UK is a member, states that ‘Only transparency, impartiality and independence from political motivated manipulation will ensure proper administration of the election process “.

Independence is the only way to protect Scotland's democracy

The Elections BIll is another example of the UK Government diverging from the principles and standards that democratic countries abide by.

We have seen the Conservative Government pack the House of Lords with donors and cronies. It is threatening the independence of the judiciary, placing its own supporters on the boards of public institutions and attacking the rights of immigrants and the right to protest.

Now it is attempting to interfere with the electoral process. There is almost no evidence of electoral fraud. Imposing voter ID rules is a clear attempt to suppress the votes of certain classes of people who are unlikely to vote Conservative. 

The Scottish Government is powerless to refuse to stop voter ID being imposed in general elections. It may be able to mitigate this by giving people free access to an acceptable form of voter ID. But in the longer term, independence is the only way to protect democracy in Scotland. 

By Jackie Kemp