Boris Johnson has defended plans to require voters to prove their identity before casting ballots, despite condemnation from civil liberties groups and senior MPs – on both sides of the Commons.
The prime minister dismissed as “absolute nonsense” criticism that he was seeking to suppress the votes of those who do not back the Tories by introducing an identification requirement.
Downing Street insisted it was a “reasonable approach” – and that 99.6 per cent of people in pilots requiring people to show photographic ID had managed to vote without difficulty.
The new requirements – included in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday – are necessary to “protect democracy”, Johnson claimed – but former Tory minister David Davis said it was an “illiberal solution for a non-existent problem”.
Campaigners also warned that people without ID would be disenfranchised as a result of the move, especially those in marginalised groups.
Joanna Cherry of the SNP said the government should be extending the voting franchise, “like we’ve recently done in Scotland”.
Joanna Cherry(SNP) – “Where is the evidence for voter fraud… we should be extending the franchise, like we’ve recently done in Scotland, & not bringing in measures witch might restrict people in exercising their right to vote.. “#QueensSpeech pic.twitter.com/boHXH82xV9— Haggis_UK 🇬🇧 🇪🇺 (@Haggis_UK) May 11, 2021
In February 2020, the Scottish Parliament extended voting rights to all foreign nationals with leave to remain – including those granted refugee status – and prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less.
The bill passed despite requiring a super-majority at Holyrood, winning the support of two-thirds of the 129 members.
Michael Russell, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, said at the time that the “historic” legislation was “an example of Scotland’s ability to take the lead in making progressive reforms”.
He added: “It also reflects the reality of modern Scotland: a nation committed to robustly meeting our duties to the treaties that safeguard our human rights, that welcomes those who seek to join our society, and gives a democratic voice to the most marginalised in our communities.
“EU and Commonwealth citizens already have the franchise, but it was critical that we recognised the enormous contribution of others by extending the right to vote.
“This extension is especially meaningful in the atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the UK Government’s plans for the immigration system – but instead of instilling insecurity and fear, this Government is using the powers that it has to send the message that Scotland is open, welcoming, and home to all those who so choose.”
At the 2019 General Election, out of 47,587,254 people voting, there was only 1 conviction of voter fraud (+0 cautions).— Election Maps UK (@ElectionMapsUK) May 11, 2021
That represents 0.0000021014% of votes.
But asked if he was trying to limit votes for opposition parties, Johnson told a Downing Street press conference on Monday evening: “I would say that was complete nonsense and what we want to do is to protect democracy, the transparency and the integrity of the electoral process, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask first-time voters to produce some evidence of identity.”
But Davis told The Independent: “It’s yet another unnecessary ID card approach from the Government… There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that there is a problem with voter fraud at polling stations.”
Shadow democracy minister Cat Smith said 3.5 million voters did not have photographic ID and the policy would “put up obstacles for poorer voters”.
“The chances are we all know someone without photo ID, maybe it’s your nan, your son, your mate from the football? Don’t have a driving licence, don’t travel abroad?” she added.
Presenter 🗣️ “You are going to disenfranchise some groups in society who don’t have photo ID?”— The London Economic (@LondonEconomic) May 11, 2021
Matt Hancock 🗣️ “No, it’s about fairness…”
Stephen Dixon 🗣️ “There were only 6 cases of voter fraud at the last election?” #QueensSpeech pic.twitter.com/5dX9atK5Js
Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society, said: “David Davis is right, this policy is a solution in search of a problem.
“Voting is safe and secure in the UK, meaning this policy is just an unnecessary barrier to democratic participation. Ministers need to listen to these concerns and drop these costly plans.
“Millions of people lack photo ID in this country. These proposals will make it harder to vote for huge numbers of voters, locking ordinary people out of our democracy and unfairly discriminating against those who lack ID.”
Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, said: “Millions of people in the UK don’t have photo ID, and the vast majority of them come from communities that are already marginalised and under-represented by our political system.
“Meanwhile the Government’s own findings show our current voting system is safe and secure. Instead of creating more barriers to voting, Ministers should focus on making it easier for everyone to vote, and ensuring we can all have an equal say in our democratic process.
“As there is no justification for this threat to the right to vote, it feels like an opportunistic attack on the rights of some of the most marginalised people in society, a classic example of ruling through division and distrust.”