The mid-terms were as gripping as ever for those of us who love to watch a bit of American election drama unfold. Some of the fascination lies in the polarisation and extremes, particularly on battleground issues such as abortion and gun control. Like the issues themselves, vote rigging and voter suppression in the US are something we tend to view from a distance, albeit with dismay. We rubberneck in morbid fascination at the car crash going on over the pond, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t happen here. Thanks to new legislation, however, that sense of safety is misplaced.
Voter suppression in the US
Voter suppression (a technique that creates barriers for people to register to vote, vote by mail, or vote in person) has always been present to some degree in America but it seems to be enjoying something of a revival in recent years.
The American Civil Liberties Union claims that 400 or more anti-voter bills have been introduced recently in 48 states, where “suppression efforts range from the seemingly unobstructive, like strict voter ID laws and cuts to early voting, to mass purges of voter rolls and systemic disenfranchisement”.
The drive is coming from an increasingly extreme part of the Republican Party which simply won’t accept the fact that in a democracy sometimes your opponents win.
The myth of voter fraud, fueled by other outlandish conspiracy theories, has developed a life of its own to such an extent that state after state is attempting to criminalise harmless aspects of democratic participation. These measures are aimed squarely at poorer voters, and since in many states there is a strong racial aspect to what is going on, the echo of Jim Crow is hard to ignore.
Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers introduced a bill this year to create a multimillion-dollar agency devoted to investigating election fraud, despite already having an election integrity unit that does just that. According to the Guardian she has praised white nationalists and says she wants to see her political opponents hanged.
And the evidence for extensive voter fraud? It doesn’t exist. The Brennan Centre for Justice based at New York University School of Law has undertaken extensive research on the subject and found voter fraud is rare. A reporting project from the Associated Press in 2021 said there was no evidence that widespread voter fraud led to a stolen election in 2020, finding fewer than 475 potential instances of fraud out of more than 25 million votes cast.
The legislation in the US appears to be an attempt, based on a lie, to disenfranchise poorer voters. It is therefore deeply troubling that the UK seems set to embark on a similar path (no doubt driven by similar politics).
Voter suppression in the UK: first steps
Back in 2010 the new coalition government, deciding there was a need to reform the voting system, introduced what became the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. The justification for much of this legislation was the premise of widespread voter fraud. Yet as in the American case, this premise is false: evidence of voter fraud in the UK is minimal.
There was a peak in offences around 2004, when all-postal voting trials were run in four English regions for the combined European and local elections. But the numbers were still relatively small, and since then loopholes have been closed, with the result that there has been a “clear decline in the number of convictions for electoral fraud since 2007”.
Undeterred, the subsequent Conservative government rushed through ill-thought-out legislation that supposedly addressed the red herring of fraud but that in reality disenfranchised vast swathes of voters. I wrote about this in some depth for the Smith Institute, showing what exactly were the effects of the move to Individual Voter Registration.
In particular, people who lived in inner city areas with high ‘churn’ or turnover of population year-on-year, are predictably disproportionately affected by a switch to individual registration. Areas with young and/or student populations and high levels of privately rented property are also most at risk of residents dropping off the electoral roll.
Voter suppression in the UK: importing the American model
Fast forward to 2022 and the relentless march by the Tories to further erode hard fought improvements to democratic participation continues.
Despite enforcing a decade of real-terms pay cuts and a public sector spending freeze the government has magically found up to £180mn to introduce photographic ID in time for next May’s elections. The reason? Supposedly to combat fraud. The evidence? Well, it simply isn’t there, as Sky News reported back in 2019.
But we are living in a post-truth world where experts are derided and facts are only acknowledged if it suits the government’s agenda. Consequently, facts play no part in this current onslaught on basic democratic rights.
As the excellent Byline Times article by David Henck pointed out recently, “people will be barred from voting unless they have an official photo pass – either a passport or driving licence, a biometric immigration document or some concessionary bus passes”.
Who is this aimed at?
Who will these measures target? Well work it out. Bus passes issued to the over 60s will be accepted but student IDs, library cards, and bank statements won’t. See where this is going? The list of acceptable forms of ID means younger people, those without a passport and those with less settled lives may struggle to show proof of identity at a polling station and so be turned away. These are same people who tend not to vote Tory at election time.
Peter Walker in the Guardian articulates clearly the current situation, as it is now “the duty of cash-strapped councils to issue people with an electoral identity document if they do not have any of the agreed forms of photo ID but this process won’t start until well into the New Year”.
The article goes on to say, “Tudor Evans, the lead of the opposition Labour group on Plymouth city council said its electoral officials had calculated that if every resident who did not have the necessary ID – up to 4% of the total – applied for the document, it would take one full-time staff member 36 weeks to process them”.
The Electoral Reform Society reckons that “2% of people don’t have any form of photo ID (including expired or unrecognisable) and 4% don’t have recognisable ID (roughly 2.1 million people)”. (These figures are from government-commissioned research.)
“The bigger story,” according to evidence given by Voice4Change to the elections bill enquiry in August 2021, “is that 19 million citizens are still not on the parliamentary electoral register.” Fully one in four black and Asian people are not registered to vote (Electoral Commission, 2019).
A disturbing future for the UK’s electoral landscape
We are sleepwalking into territory that is not just undemocratic but truly shocking. And it has no limits. As each day passes, we become as a nation more like the worst aspects of America, whilst at the same time despairing of the nation they have become.
First they came for the people in the rented sector, the people who move around a lot. Now it is students and young people. It may not be you – yet. But it will be your children and your friends. And in the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller:
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak for me.
We should, while there’s still time, speak out.