The Queen’s Speech on 19 October has been dismissed as an exercise in electioneering rather than a programme for government. Usually the Queen’s Speech outlines the government’s legislative programme, but as Boris Johnson seems very keen for an election in the very near future, this Queen’s Speech seems more getting the Queen to outline a Tory manifesto than a serious programme for government.
The inclusion of an item to require people to produce photographic ID in order to vote could sound innocuous. Turning up at a polling station and simply giving one’s name does sound like something that could be abused. But the Electoral Reform Society points out that there were just 8 allegations of voter impersonation in 2018, so this is hardly a problem.
Tilting the balance away from “free and fair elections”
In the May 2019 local elections, asking voters for ID was tried in 10 council areas, and 700 people were turned away for not having suitable ID. That’s more serious. What’s particularly alarming is that around eleven million people have neither driving license nor passport. It undermines trust in elections if people find they can’t vote. This is particularly serious because many of those with neither driving license nor passport are among the less-wealthy. This sounds like the Tories trying to exclude people who are less likely to vote Tory.
On The World at One on 15 October, Jacob Rees Mogg explained that local authorities would provide, free of charge, photographic ID for people affected. That sounds like a solution, but is deeply flawed. Some will simply not hear the message until it is too late. If you’re used to living in poverty, going to the Council Offices feels a great deal more threatening than if you are wealthy: how many people will feel reluctant to seek the photographic ID? There’s a particularly serious problem for people from ethnic minorities. Someone who’s English is not so good might well feel reluctant. Someone who’s family has been affected by repressive regimes and has seen rising xenophobia since the referendum might well feel more afraid.
All this comes on top of the changes to voter registration in 2015 which saw nearly 800,000 drop off the register. That included ending the arrangements that saw students automatically registered by their halls of residence, so the effect of the change was to increase the risk of students not voting.
In the UK there have been claims of problems with fraud on postal votes, though the lack of actual prosecutions suggests this is exaggerated. Here there is a slightly different problem. Voters sign their forms to ask for postal votes, and sign when they send their vote in. That sounds like a way to check that the vote has been cast by the right person. But many of us have signatures that vary. None of us would know whether our votes have been discarded because our signatures didn’t match sufficiently.
Asking for ID sounds like a solution that causes problems, to a problem that doesn’t exist. If we are heading into a Westminster election this is particularly serious as there were 11 constituencies in 2017 where an MP was elected on a majority of less than 100.
There are perceptions of electoral fraud. These undermine trust in elections, but the answer is to look at the lack of trust not to respond in a way that makes elections less trustworthy.
The sinister side of this
At the time of the 2016 referendum I heard stories of people who don’t normally vote heading to the polling stations with pens, so that their “Leave” vote couldn’t be rubbed out and turned into one for “Remain”. If some people are already feeling that the electoral system can’t be trusted, this fuels the anxiety, and provides perfect cover for the Tories to make changes that tilt the balance in their favour.
In Brexit-supporting twitter feeds I’ve seen some strong comments about Remain supporters wanting another EU referendum with Brexit supporters assuming that this means a referendum would be rigged. They logic is that Remain supporters wouldn’t support a referendum unless sure that Remain would win, which implies “the establishment” cheating.
Boris Johnson seems to be squaring up for a “people v politicians” election in which he will seek to present himself as the one trying to deliver Brexit despite the “Remainer establishment”. This change fits what his supporters want to hear. Opposition to him preventing people from voting will be heard as the “Remainer establishment” moaning, so it reinforces his position in the eyes of his people.
If we do have a General Election where photographic ID is needed, the actual effect tilts the balance in Boris Johnson’s favour. But it does disenfranchise some of his supporters as well, among the elderly without driving license or passport. Among the various groups who would be affected, this is the one that is most likely to contain people who will speak out. I fear that, on the morning after a General Election, most of the people who found they couldn’t vote will be lying low, but there would be strident comment (particularly from the Brexit party) about Brexit-supporters who couldn’t vote. That both makes a Boris Johnson government more likely, and sets us up for stories of “the establishment” preventing Brexiteers from voting — dangerous at the best of times, and doubly-dangerous if the Tories have lost.
Recently I wrote something for Liberal Democrat Voice about the real danger of Boris Johnson acting in a way that is profoundly anti-democratic. That may not be malice, and could even be unwitting. But it is deeply dangerous, this attempted interference in the process of elections is harmful if he gets away with it, and plays to a narrative about “the establishment” stopping him even if he doesn’t.
Electoral fraud is a crime. If people are being convicted in significant numbers then there is a case for changing how things are done in order to preserve trust in elections. Changing how things are done when there is no evidence of trouble undermines that trust, and seems likely to bias elections and trust in their result. This is deeply dangerous.
There is a real problem in the form of possible interference from Russia via social media and questionable campaigning on social media. This does need attention — though the “right” solution is not so easy to see. There’s a real problem if unnecessary action against a problem that doesn’t exist (voter impersonation) has the effect of biasing an election and makes people think the problem has been “solved”, so they don’t look at the real problems of mis-use of social media.