Happy Christmas, Jeremy
My husband having reiterated that he wanted ‘nothing to do with it’, I got into my car and drove to nearby Godalming, parking in Homebase car park. I had already alerted Jeremy Hunt, on social media, to the greeting I had planned during his constituency business of visiting a local church.
I stood on the street, trying to look as inconspicuous and diminutive as possible. After twenty minutes of pacing in anxiety outside a closed pizza restaurant, I almost gave up hope. After all, I was on tight festive schedule. But just as I was about to head off in defeat, two large, dark vehicles suddenly appeared, powering down the road towards the church. A besuited gentleman jumped out, looking quickly around him, followed by a taller man in a Christmas hat.
“Hi, Jeremy,” I quivered, “Happy Christmas. I brought a card for you.” Jeremy’s smile dropped slightly as I added, “along with my thoughts about voter ID.”
I was genuinely fearful about this latest, highly unsettling tinkering with our democracy. Now, I felt at least I had done something.
A government choosing who votes
In 2023, I remain fearful and I tend to believe that fear is fully justified. On 4 May, in just under three months, the impact of one of the most significant changes to Great Britain’s electoral system will be felt in England (although not yet in Scotland and Wales). On this day, all voters arriving at polling stations will be required to present government-sanctioned photographic ID in order to be able to vote, to exercise our democratic right to choose who leads us. Yet no one seems to be talking about it.
Despite a recent advertising campaign launched by the Electoral Commission, people in England remain blissfully unaware that if they don’t present identification at the polling booth, they will be blocked from voting. As of 31 January, according to Peter Walker writing in the Guardian, “Only about 10,000 people in Great Britain have applied for a government-issued voter ID since the scheme opened, just 0.5% of the total who might need the document”. A poll on 13 January, according to Unlock Democracy, found that awareness of the need for photographic ID was at a meagre 33%.
The people who ‘might need the document’ are the millions of people, according to the Electoral Reform Society1, who ‘lack the strictest forms of photo ID, such as a passport or driving licence’. Those particularly at risk of being barred from voting are those from disadvantaged groups; ‘the government’s own commissioned research found that those with severely limiting disabilities, the unemployed, people without qualifications, and those who had never voted before were all less likely to hold any form of photo ID’.
The list of prescribed ID which will allow people to vote (passports and driving licences being the most prominent) is considered by many to be prohibitive. In 2022, a cross-party group of peers passed an amendment in the Lords to enable ‘student IDs, library cards, bank statements and other easily accessible forms of ID’ to be presented. This broadening of eligible documentation was subsequently rejected by Parliament.
The formal list of ID has been criticised by the Electoral Reform Society and others, as providing fewer options for younger voters. This, particularly, as well as fears of disadvantaged communities being disproportionally affected, has led to criticism that the government is merrily rolling out a policy of voter suppression by targeting those voters less likely to vote Conservative.
The Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission and the Local Government Association have all expressed concern, particularly around the incredibly short time frame for implementing this highly bureaucratic policy, which will impact the very foundations of our democracy. That the voter ID programme is estimated to cost up to £180mn, according to the government itself, over a ten-year period, is also causing consternation, particularly amongst those of us who are scared to put our heating on.1
Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in
Earlier this month, I was able to follow up with Jeremy Hunt and talk with him about my concerns, which are obviously shared by many in the country. Projected images of people being turned away from polling stations, of disquiet and potential unrest, of confusion as election officials are unable to match a picture to a person, of anger and argument as people demand their right to vote, having been effectively kept in the dark about these new barriers having been imposed on them were, it’s fair to say, not as vivid in Jeremy’s mind as my own.
I spoke about our democracy being tainted, with echoes of elections in countries such as Russia and Belarus. Jeremy responded that this mirroring of less democratic regimes was exactly what his government was trying to avoid. However, it remains unclear how to reconcile this purported objective with a political strategy which seeks to respond to a problem that doesn’t exist. According to the Electoral Reform Society, ‘in 2019, there were only 33 allegations of impersonation at the polling station, out of over 58 million votes cast’.2
Electoral fraud has actually fallen in Great Britain since 2008 and any fraud registered has been mostly postal and proxy. If the safety of our elections is so vital, if our democracy is so precious, why not focus on postal voting, which will, in fact, proceed exactly as it has done previously? Even better, why not properly investigate putative foreign interference in our elections, shadowy election funding, and all those other areas of the electoral process which effectively remove the power from the people and into the hands of those who have no right to hoard it?
To his credit, suggesting this wasn’t necessarily his area of expertise, Jeremy Hunt has offered to speak with Michael Gove about my concerns and to come back to me.
Calls to action
This is important. I urge you to please contact your MP and request that they ask the government to:
- fund an all-household mailing, so that everyone knows about photo voter ID
- confirm the target the government has set for the sign-up (of those without valid photo voter ID) to a Voting Authority Certificate (VAC).
These are key aspects of the policy. The government should be aiming to ensure no eligible voter is barred from voting due to a lack of a photo ID.
Unlock Democracy has also launched a petition to protect our right to vote.
Contacting our politicians, raising awareness on social media, encouraging people to register for postal voting, directing people, who don’t already have voter ID, to the government website to apply for the VAC – these things could make all the difference in terms of protecting our ever more fragile and distant democracy.
The public – us – acting, speaking up and demanding our right to vote is the only way in which this troubling policy might be reflected upon by those who have the power to do so. Otherwise, come 4 May, both the public and the government may well be caught horrifyingly unaware of the real-life impact of blocking people from voting in a supposed liberal democracy.
- From Unlock Democracy document: ‘Action on Voter ID’
- From Electoral Reform Society document: ‘Voter ID Talking Points’