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

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

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Law to make voters show a photo ID could disenfranchise ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ people and the homeless, say critics

LONDON - Millions of voters do not know they must show ID to take part in Thursday's local elections in England and Wales under rules that were rolled out last year, according to the Best for Britain campaign group.

Voters must bring a passport or another valid photo ID to cast a ballot, under regulations introduced by the Conservative government to prevent voter fraud. Previously, Britons only had to give a name and address.

Some 16% of voters do not know about the ID rules, according to a survey of 15,000 people carried out by pollster Survation in April for Best For Britain, which campaigns for strengthening democratic rights.

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At least 14,000 eligible voters - out of a potential electorate of 27 million - could not vote in 2023's local elections because they lacked the right ID, the Electoral Commission said.

The commission has said marginalised groups - such as the unemployed or disabled people, and those from ethnic minorities - are less likely to have accepted forms of identification.

The Cabinet Office has said the new rules will strengthen the integrity of the voting system, though polling experts say election fraud is rare. 

Voters who lack documentation can apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate. But rights groups and the Electoral Commission say the changes could limit access to democracy, with a general election expected before January 2025. 

Here's how the new rules could exclude marginalised Britons from voting, according to campaigners and charities in comments made after the government rolled out the rules last year:

Black, Asian and minority groups

Equality think-tank the Runnymede Trust said voter IDs were likely to have a disproportionate impact on Black and minority ethnic 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."

"Voter ID is discriminatory by must be scrapped before the next general election."

Alba Kapoor, Head of Policy at the Runnymede Trust

LGBTQ+ people

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, said LGBT+ rights group Stonewall.

In a 2021 report, nearly a quarter of trans respondents and almost one in five non-binary people 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, or if it has an out-of-date gender marker.

"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."

Homeless people

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 May 1, 2024 ahead of local elections.

(Reporting by Lin Taylor, Sharon Kimathi and Rachel Savage; Editing by Sonia Elks and Lyndsay Griffiths.)

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