As the debate on mandatory voter identification continues in the UK, the realities of such requirements are plainly visible across the Atlantic.
The US has been having this same debate since the Jim Crow era. Seven Republican-dominated US states now have voter ID laws as strict as what the UK Government is proposing. These laws are implemented by state governments that also gerrymander, purge voter roles, and restrict voter registration. A lot of this legislation came directly in the wake of Democratic victories at the state level in 2020. It’s clear what their goal is.
One such bill in Georgia, SB241, included measures to end voting by mail without providing a reason alongside stringent voter id requirements. This brings to mind the UK Government’s proposals in the Electoral Integrity Bill to limit postal voting by requiring voters to re-apply every 3 years (before every general election). More similar still, Republican representatives pointed to voter fraud risk when challenged on the legislation’s intentions. The same boogeyman was used for the same purpose: disenfranchising the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
Nevertheless, the UK Government continues to back plans for voter ID requirements, despite the fact that these requirements will alienate voters and cost taxpayers millions of pounds. In response to a petition to require ID verification for social media usage, this same Government even directly stated that “3.5 million people do not have a valid photo ID”.
Renfrewshire SNP Councillors wrote in June to the Prime Minister, accusing the UK Government of “attacking the poor”. They’re correct to think so. The Government’s own commissioned research has demonstrated that vulnerable groups were less likely to hold any form of photo ID.
Chloe Smith MP responded that the Government would continue with its plans. Echoing US Republicans, she stated that voter fraud is “a crime we cannot allow room for.” This response, dubbed a “whitewash” by the SNP Councillors, neglects to address any of the tangible concerns that many people in the UK have regarding voter id requirements. Our friends at the Electoral Reform Society hope to use the incident as a case study.
Voter fraud itself is practically non-existent, mentioned solely as a justification to allow for draconian controls on who can vote and who can not. Funnily enough, it doesn’t seem to come up much in other contexts. According to the Electoral Commission, only 4 convictions for voter fraud occurred in the 2019 general election (this tiny number is also higher than in many previous elections).
Additionally, the Voter ID section of the bill leaves a startling amount undecided. How will Councils orchestrate the supposed ‘free election identification document’ for everyone? how will it be paid for? how is this actually going to work? The bill makes provisions for ministers to make many of these decisions down the line, leaving the scale of possibilities frighteningly wide.
The worst part of all of this is that the UK electoral system is in dire need of reform. We need to better regulate third parties, expand voting access, and modernise our democracy to be fit for the digital age. We don’t need to be ripping out pages of the US Republican playbook.
Some parts of Chloe Smith’s Elections Bill even take small steps in the directions we need to be moving in, such as campaign finance and digital imprints. All of that progress is eradicated when you include policies like voter ID, part of a US policy package that American voting rights activist Stacey Abrams calls “a redux Jim Crowe in a Suit”.
Those of us that care about the integrity of the UK’s electoral system have many ideas on how to fix it, but first we need to take blatant voter suppression policies off the table.