This last week saw the first elections in this country since the passing of the Elections Act 2022, which included the enormously controversial provision that presentation of photo-ID would be a requirement to vote in elections thereafter. According to Sky News, some 3.5 million eligible voters in the country do not possess valid photo-ID, and there have been concerns over class, income, ethnicity and age divides in who may or may not own an eligible form of ID.
It was feared that young people would be a group particularly harmed by this new policy, given the fewer forms of valid ID that young people can choose from or the already dramatically lower turnout in younger voters compared to older ones. Fulwood ward in Sheffield has a particularly large youth population – it is home to Endcliffe and Ranmoor student villages, first-year halls for the University of Sheffield. By zeroing in on this ward, we were able to observe how the voter-ID policy was playing out among students on the ground.
The concerns for young voters
It did seem that there was going to be a problem, with over 60’s bus passes and 60+ oyster cards accepted as valid photo-ID at the voting booth and their equivalents for younger people not, leading critics to see the worst in the government and assume that there was some ulterior motive for making it easier for older voters, who tend to be more conservative, to vote than younger ones, typically more progressive. In this vein, the Labour Party accused the Tories of “trying to rig the rules of the game to help themselves”.
The justification from the Conservatives was that they were battling electoral fraud. At the bill’s second reading in parliament in 2021, minister for the constitution and devolution, Chloe Smith, said: “Part 1 of the Bill is about getting the basics of our elections right by updating the security and integrity of the ballot. That is why it introduces new measures that will stamp out the potential for voter fraud from our elections.”
Yet, many critics argue that electoral fraud is a non-issue, even senior conservative figures. David Davis MP, formerly Brexit secretary, branded the new requirement “an illiberal idea in pursuit of a non-existent problem”. This argument is backed up by data on conviction numbers for electoral fraud in the country. Between 2018 and 2022, there were just nine convictions relating to electoral fraud and six police cautions issued, according to Electoral Commission figures. This is interesting when compared to the numbers without valid ID, especially given the reportedly low numbers who applied for a voter authority certificate in comparison.
Fears in Fulwood
Fulwood ward has three Liberal Democrat councillors – up for election this year was Andrew Sangar, elected in 2019. His main opponents, Matthew Killeya of Labour and Dylan Lewis-Creser of the Greens, overlapped a lot in what they thought of the government’s new voter-ID requirements.
Killeya, a resident of Fulwood, ran last year in the ward and closed the gap with the Liberal Democrats to roughly 700 votes; it had been around 1,700 before. Killeya was positive before the election, saying that he and his supporters had put in a lot of work on the ground, and that he thought the election would be close.
The Labour candidate was very concerned about the effects that voter-ID requirements could bring. “I’m really worried about the fact that voters will be disenfranchised,” he said, “That is the most likely outcome of this legislation”. Killeya was concerned about the necessity of it – there’s “minimal evidence” of voter fraud in the UK, he said – as well as the cost of the policy, £180mn for the next 10 years. “We’re spending a lot of money on something that is completely unnecessary,” he reiterated.
Similarly, Lewis-Creser voiced their opposition to the policy in the run-up to the elections. They told Yorkshire Bylines that the requirements were “very worrying for democracy”, particularly local democracy given typically lower turnout. These new measures would push turnout lower, leading to a less resilient democracy, they added.
Both candidates also highlighted the injustice of which IDs will be accepted, meaning the policy will disproportionately affect younger people.
The picture on the ground – many students possess voter-ID
On polling day, voting went smoothly for many students in Fulwood. Every voter I spoke to had ID and had had no issues with the process of showing it. Many said that they didn’t know any peers who didn’t have valid photo-ID, “You need ID to drink,” one quipped.
You also need evidence of your identity when enrolling at university, which all students voting will have done – this was mentioned by William Dodson (pictured above), a first-year student at the University of Sheffield (UoS). Although you can enrol with a birth certificate which is not a valid form of voter-ID, many students will have used valid forms of ID like passports and driving licences to enrol and so will have this option for voting.
Dodson, however, did express concerns over other young people: “Other people our age, for example who are taking an apprenticeship or are in work, may not have access [to ID], especially those from lower income households.”
Those unaware or confused face an extra hurdle
It was not, however, the case that these requirements did not affect students in Fulwood at all. Jenny Cole, another first-year at UoS, said that although she’s not met anyone without valid ID, she has met people who “are not sure which ID they could use to vote, and didn’t necessarily know where to find out which options were available to them”. She said that these people, confused about which ID they could use, may well for this reason just not vote.
Killeya was also particularly concerned about awareness among students – “it really boils down to awareness of the requirements of voter-ID,” he said. Although national awareness of the requirement to show photo-ID when voting has risen significantly in the last few months, it was still, up to a week or so ago, only at 76%, meaning that some one-in-four people did not know about the requirement, according to the Electoral Commission. “That’s an awful lot of people who just don’t know,” Killeya said. He told me that when out campaigning, he’s come across lots of people who didn’t know about the new id requirements – it’s a conversation that happens “quite often”.
Although clear that most students do possess valid forms of id, it does seem that to introduce a policy that puts a further hurdle in the way of voting, potentially confusing them and, if they’re sent away and have to come back, making it more time-consuming and laborious to vote, could cause more students to stay away from the ballot box. Though some students are hyper-engaged, many only follow politics loosely and this policy, which many argue seeks to confront a non-existent problem, is certainly not going to be a help in engaging an already typically low-turnout group in the democratic process.