Since 2010, the Conservative governments have become obsessed with tinkering with the scope of and the arrangements for our democracy. Unfortunately, it appears to be the case of David/Theresa/ Boris fiddling whilst citizens have become more and more frustrated with and alienated from democratic engagement through the ballot box.
A group of Conservative MPs have been relentless in their determination to restrict postal votes to only those on their death-beds, justified by pointing to a small number of abuses in the two decades since the choice to vote by post was extended to every elector.
Of course, they forget that a similar small number of abuses happened when postal voting was restricted to the seriously ill. In Sheffield, we had the conviction of a Liberal Democrat councillor candidate who collected the voting papers of individuals who had died between the despatch of the ballot papers and the election, then completed them with votes for himself. The security and audit controls have changed since then.
I think there would be a massive revolt if the government were to try to restrict postal voting. The subsequent question would be ‘why can’t we have internet voting?’
Then we had David Cameron’s attempt to ‘equalise’ the number of voters in each constituency. But, the equalisation was based on registers which enable particular groups to register twice. The biggest groups are students, registering at their family home and university address, and second-home owners, registering at their family home and holiday cottage or business flat. Of course, it was all smothered with a populist 10% cut in the number of MPs.
Whatever, the combination of those proposals would actually have resulted in big differences in the number of actual (as opposed to registered) constituents in each parliamentary seat in Sheffield and South Yorkshire.
The latest proposed electoral tinkering concerns an intention to require anyone who wants to vote to have to produce photographic ID.
As it happens, most countries in the world do require people to produce evidence of their identity before being issued with a ballot paper. But these are all countries which have a universal ID system. Every individual has an identity card. They are normally required to carry it in their everyday life. They use it to be able to access a whole range of services.
We do not have that in the UK. And, it is the very same people, who opposed that the UK should have an ID entitlement card scheme just 15 years ago, who are proposing these ID requirements now. It is the very same people who demand that only those who are entitled to use the NHS and benefits and social housing should be able to access it, but then oppose the only serious way in which we can make this happen. These things are mutually contradictory. Some might call it hypocritical.
We don’t have robust and reliable ID systems in the UK. Those used by the police, the NHS, schools, local authorities, the benefit system, the inland revenue don’t match up and are incompatible. We are wasting hundreds of millions of pounds each year trying to make each system more reliable. Yet, it is believed that there are more than five million more national insurance numbers in circulation than there are people entitled to have one.
More than three and a half million people in the UK don’t have acceptable photo ID. If the government’s proposal is to limit it to passport or driving licence, then 11 million people don’t have acceptable ID
And, what is the ‘evidence’ being used to support the ‘ID for ballot paper’ proposal? Impersonation! ‘Impersonation’ is when someone goes to the polling station and claims the ballot paper of someone else who is on the electoral register and then votes.
To require this whole new ID arrangement, you would think that there is widespread voting abuse. Is there? Since 2010, 181 people have been turned away from a polling station having been challenged with impersonation. And just two people have been convicted of impersonation.
Meanwhile, the government has been running pilot voter ID schemes in just a few areas. The result in the 2019 trial? 740 people turned up to vote and were turned away because they didn’t have acceptable ID.
So, four times as many people were turned away from voting for not having the correct ID in just a few areas in 2019 as have been turned away for impersonation challenges throughout the UK in the last decade.
That’s why, when this latest nonsense from the government comes before the House of Commons, I hope we will hear the Speaker announcing The Noes have it, the Noes have it.