Boris Johnson’s multimillion pound plan to introduce mandatory voter ID at elections has been criticised as an “illiberal solution in pursuit of a non-existent problem” by a former Tory cabinet minister.
As the prime minister prepares to set out his legislative agenda for the coming year at the Queen’s Speech, the senior MP David Davis told The Independent the “unnecessary” and “pointless” proposals should be abandoned by the government.
Civil liberties groups and race equality campaigners also sounded the alarm over plans, reiterating concerns that barriers could be erected for millions of eligible voters who lack photo identification, which they said were “disproportionately” from ethnic minority and working-class backgrounds.
Mr Johnson’s government first committed to introduce ID checks at polling stations in October 2019 – for both parliamentary elections in Great Britain and local elections in England – but the plans failed to materialise during the last Parliament.
It is now expected requirements for ID will be included in an Elections Integrity Bill – forming one of around two dozen pieces of legislation that will be unveiled on Tuesday during the State Opening of Parliament.
“It’s yet another unnecessary ID card approach from the government,” the former cabinet minister Mr Davis said. “There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that there is a problem with voter fraud at polling stations.”
“It’s actually quite difficult to do,” he stressed. “Somebody else might turn up, they might have voted already. It’s addressing a problem that is not there and it’s impinging on people’s privacy and convenience.”
“It’s illiberal. It’s an illiberal solution in pursuit of a non-existent problem. If you’ve got an ID card, you’re putting a barrier in the way of people to exercise their own democratic rights, which is not necessary and shouldn’t be there.”
Pressed on whether the government should abandon the proposals, the former cabinet minister replied: “Yes. It should never have taken it up in the first place.
“It’s pointless, it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste ministerial effort and as I say it’s an illiberal solution in pursuit of a non-existent problem. And it will be expensive… for nothing.”
According to most recent data from the Electoral Commission, 595 cases of alleged voter fraud were investigated by police in 2019, with just four leading to a conviction and two individuals given a police caution. The electoral watchdog concluded in the same year that the UK has “low levels of proven electoral fraud” and that there “remains no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud”.
Critics of the plans have also argued that the legislation is disproportionate when compared to recent trials of voter ID schemes in England, with hundreds being turned away from polling stations for failing to bring along the correct identification.
Alba Kapoor, a policy officer at the race equality think tank Runnymede Trust, told The Independent: “One in five people in the UK electorate do not have any form of photo ID. These people are disproportionately BME and working class, who will effectively become disenfranchised as a result of this legislation.
“Focus should be on the fact that voter registration numbers are far lower among the BME electorate, instead of unnecessary Voter ID legislation.”
In October, the government attempted to allay some of these concerns, confirming plans for a new free-of-charge “local electoral identity document” for those without passports or driving licence to be made available to those that apply.
Cat Smith, the shadow minister for young people and democracy, however, echoed Mr Davis’ views, describing the government proposals as a “solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist”.
Referring to voter ID requirements in some American states, she told The Independent: “To be very blunt about it, I think it sends the message that the Conservative party in the UK is taking lessons on democracy from the Republican playbook on voter suppression from the US.”
“We don’t have a massive issue with voter impersonations at polling stations in Britain, and it’s therefore not a problem that needs to be addressed. By doing so it will make it more difficult for literally millions of legitimate voters to cast their ballots.”
The Electoral Reform Society that has been pushing against the ID plans since they were first floated by Mr Johnson’s administration, insisted: “Voting is safe and secure in the UK, so rather than inventing problems, the government should focus on the real issue in politics – including 9 million people missing on the electoral roll, and the glaring loopholes in our lobbying laws.”
Dr Jess Garland, the director of policy at the organisation, added: “At a cost of up to £20m per election, mandatory ID is an expensive distraction and the wrong priority right now. These proposals should be dropped before they damage political equality in the UK.”
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “Showing identification to vote is a reasonable approach to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud in our current system and strengthen its integrity.
“Evidence shows that voter identification does not impact turnout and it has been operating in Northern Ireland with ease for decades. A broad range of photographic documents will be accepted, not just limited to passports and driver’s licences. We have also been clear that a free voter card will be available if needed.”