Does the UK's voter photo ID rule lock out marginalised Brits?
Volunteers wait to record voters' intentions at a new polling station at The Turbine Theatre in the Nine Elms ward of the borough of Wandsworth on the day of the local elections, in London, Britain, May 5, 2022. REUTERS/Toby Melville
What’s the context?
New law to make voters show a photo ID could disenfranchise ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ people and the homeless, say critics
LONDON - Thousands of Britons were unable to vote in recent elections because they had no photo ID, official data shows, raising concerns that marginalised groups - from minorities to the homeless - risk losing their right to vote.
Under new regulations, voters had to provide some form of photo ID to take part in local elections on May 4, in a bid to prevent voter fraud.
Previously, Britons only had to give a name and address.
It said the true figure locked out was likely to be even higher, since many would-be voters were turned away before their data was captured by electoral workers, or opted to stay away from polling stations altogether due to the new rules.
"The new voter ID requirement has posed a barrier to some voters and is likely to have a larger impact at higher turnout polls," said the Commission's Craig Westwood, looking forward to a general election due in the next 16 months canvassing the opinion of almost 50 million voters.
At the margins
In a report released on Wednesday, the Commission said the new law had a disproportionate effect on the unemployed, those with disabilities and people from minority ethnic communities.
People living in more deprived areas were also more likely to be turned away than those in wealthier areas, it found.
Critics fear the new rules could lock out millions of Britons without easy access to a photo ID, be it a driving licence or passport, and may deter the young, old, disabled and homeless people from casting their votes, advocates say.
In an all-party parliamentary report last week, lawmakers said there was a "real possibility" that voter ID rules could impact the results of the next general election.
Various photographic documents are valid, including a new Voter Authority Certificate, which is issued free of charge.
Since its launch in January, about 89,500 people have applied for the document, according to official data. However, only 25,000 people used it at May's local elections, the Electoral Commission said.
According to 2021 research commissioned by the Cabinet Office, 96% of the electorate held a form of ID with a recognisable photo.
In an electorate of 46.5 million people, that means about 1.9 million eligible voters and nearly 2.6 million Britons across the whole population do not have a recognisable photo ID, according to a December parliamentary report.
The Cabinet Office says the new rules aim to prevent absentee voting and voter intimidation.
"Showing identification to vote is a reasonable approach to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud in our current system and strengthen its integrity," a Cabinet Office spokesperson said by email.
Yet according to the Electoral Commission, Britain has low levels of voter fraud.
Police investigated 193 cases of voter fraud in 2022; none led to a conviction.
Here's how the new rules could exclude marginalised Britons from voting, according to campaigners and charities:
Black, Asian and minority groups
Electoral Commission data in 2019 showed that 25% of Black and Asian Britons were not registered to vote, compared to the national average of 17%.
Equality think-tank the Runnymede Trust said voter IDs were likely to have a disproportionate impact on Black and minority ethnic (BME) people.
"Since it was proposed, we have warned that Voter ID is a harmful, counterproductive measure that limits access to democracy for people of colour," said Alba Kapoor, Head of Policy at the Runnymede Trust.
"Voter ID is discriminatory by design ... it must be scrapped before the next general election."
Requiring voters to show a photo ID will add bureaucratic hurdles and costs to people who already face inequalities and are less likely to be able to afford a passport or driving licence, says LGBT+ rights group Stonewall.
In a 2021 report, nearly a quarter of trans respondents and almost one in five non-binary respondents said they did not have photo ID.
"The Voter ID requirement has already stopped many people from voting - and given the difficulties trans people face in updating their identification documents, we can surmise that they as a group are disproportionately affected," Felix Lane, Trans Advocacy Manager at Stonewall, said in emailed comments.
Rights advocates expressed concern that trans people may be denied a vote if they look different from their ID image.
"When it comes to trans people, often a huge part of your life is tied up with whether or not your ID represents you," Cleo Madeleine at the Gendered Intelligence charity told Context.
"Unfortunately, a lot of trans people don't have the resources or supporting information to update something like a driver's licence or a passport with the right gender marker."
Housing charities say the ID requirement could make it even harder for homeless people to vote.
Only 2% of people who are homeless are registered to vote, according to 2017 data by the Cabinet Office.
"When you are living on the streets, in a hostel or going from sofa to sofa, accessing, or keeping a hold of important documents can be a struggle and they can be easily lost or stolen," said Francesca Albanese from charity Crisis.
"By making photo ID mandatory, those without proof of identity – including those experiencing homelessness – are at real risk of being shut out of our democracy," said Albanese, the group's Executive Director of Policy and Social Change.
This article was updated throughout on September 13, 2023 to include data by the Electoral Commission and new comments.
- Facial recognition
- Digital IDs
- Data rights