2017 minus 04: Papers, please…

Posted: 28 December 2016 in 2017 minus, politics
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The more I think about the Voter ID laws proposed for the UK, the angrier I get.

I use the word “angrier” quite deliberately. This isn’t something that ‘upsets’ me, nor that ‘disappoints’ me. No, it angers me. It angers for me for several reasons that I’ll get to in a moment after a nauseatingly sweet story from more than a decade ago, from April 2004 to be precise, that I related once upon a time in another blog when it happened, but it’s too good not to repeat now.

So, April 2004, I’m reading The Times, and Philip – not even 9 years of age – is reading the headlines, getting me to help him with any hard words. Back then, I was determined that he’d have a decent vocabulary growing up, so we’d regularly read the front page of The Times together. On this particular occasion, he picks up on the story that the then Home Secretary was trying to get ID cards introduced, at first on a voluntary basis, but to be made compulsory in the next ten years or so. 

He’s mildly interested in this story even at 8 years old because he’s just got his first formal ID card: a library ticket with his name and his signature on it (!) He’s very proud of that, and I am as well.

So Philip asks a couple of intelligent questions about why ID is needed at all, and then we play a game about what ID he knows I already have. And then, after having examined my driving licence, he asks why it has a photograph on it. The following conversation takes place:

Philip: But even if you have a photograph, someone can still pretend to be you.
Me: Yes, but a photograph makes it more difficult.
Philip: But if someone really really wanted to, they could still pretend to be you, even with a photograph.
Me: You mean, someone would choose to be as ugly as me?

There’s a slight pause before:

Philip: Yes, you’re right Dad. No one would choose to look like you.

At which point I’m coming to the conclusion that they made a mistake when they stopped us parents sending them up chimneys.

But back to the government’s proposal, which have garnered some publicity the past couple of days since they announced them. Basically, what they’re planning is to trial the Voter ID system for the 2018 council elections (at the 18 councils identified as most open to electoral fraud), and then – if all goes well – introduce it nationwide for the 2020 general election. The piece in that link makes it clear that it’s already been introduced in Northern Ireland and it would be remiss of me not to say that a) I was entirely unaware of that and b) I had no idea how it’s working in practice.

That said, Stephen Bush of The New Statesman has written a piece on Facebook giving his views, and I’m struggling to find anything to object to in it; I’d go further: I don’t disagree with a word of it. If it was on the NS‘s site, I’d just link but since it’s Facebook, here’s the entire piece. It’s short, but worth reading.

The government’s plan to pilot the use of photo ID to cut down on electoral fraud has many on the left worried that the proposal is actually a ruse to decrease the number of Labour voters who are eligible to vote. Are they right?
The first thing to note is that while there is a very small number of electoral malpractice cases – fewer than 100 – some of which count as an electoral fraud, they involve matters unrelated to the wrong people voting at polling stations. The most frequent crime is putting false signatures on nomination papers, after that breaking expenses rules, and lastly making false claims about other candidates.

The most recent high-profile cases of electoral fraud involved false claims about a candidate (Labour’s Phil Woolas against his Liberal Democrat opponent in 2010), postal vote fraud (Birmingham, 2004) and bribery and spiritual influence (Lutfur Rahman, 2014).

In none of the cases would a stronger ID requirement have detected or prevented the crime.
Of course, some people will say “but what about the criminals we don’t catch?” The difficulty there is it is hard to see where this fraud is taking place. In all those cases, the result itself was a sign something was up. If someone is rigging results, they are doing so in a way that produces outcomes entirely in keeping with national swing and demographic behaviour. Other than the thrill of the chase, it’s not clear why someone would do this.

What we do know from the one part of the United Kingdom that has voter registration – Northern Ireland – is that it makes it harder for poorer people to vote as they are less likely to have the required ID. That’s why after their pilot (back in 2002) they introduced a free ID card.

There is, however, a strong argument that elections need to command a high level of public legitimacy, making the case for ID stronger. But there is a wide suite of measures the government could bring in alongside this change that would achieve that while lessening the impact of having an ID. They could, for instance, make it so you are automatically enrolled when you pay council tax, a water bill, a heating bill or any other charge that comes with a fixed abode. They could roll out a free photo ID for elections.

But as they are doing neither, it feels fair to say that at best the government is relaxed about making it harder for supporters of its opponents to vote and at worst is actively seeking to do so.

As I say, I can’t find anything to disagree with in there. The main point – that this is a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist – is made. But the final bit is what makes me angry though, takes me from upset to anger: it feels fair to say that at best the government is relaxed about making it harder for supporters of its opponents to vote and at worst is actively seeking to do so.

It does feel fair to say that; in fact, it feels unfair to look at it any other way. The government has seen how Voter ID laws have been used in the US, to restrict poorer voters from going to the polls and have thought “ooh, that’s a good idea, let’s try that here…”

Two things jump out at me regarding the proposal; well, one thing jumps out and then a consequence that I think is inevitable. But first let me say that I, as an individual, don’t have any huge problem with carrying identification. I already carry around several pieces of ID from choice, from my bank cards, to various forms of ID, including my driving license. And on occasion, when it’s been required, I’ve been more than ok with showing my passport as identification. That’s me. And if it was a purely voluntary identification scheme, with a guarantee that it wouldn’t be made compulsory, I’d sign up for a Voter ID in a heartbeat, as I would with any identification scheme.

But that’s the problem: it wouldn’t remain voluntary. For a start, any compulsory identification scheme should be free of charge to the user at the time of issue and usage. If the government wants voters to have identification, it should, amend must, supply that identifation, free of charge. (Yes, I know it’s not ‘free of charge’; taxpayers pay for it, but I’m quite ok with that. That’s why I said “free of charge to the user at the time of issue and usage”.)

Not only would it not remain free to the user – no government is going to pass up the opportunity to charge cardholders for it, and even the cost of a tenner would raise several hundred million pounds – but the UK government – every UK goverbment – has wanted to introduce ID cards for decades. This would be the first step into making identification cards compulsory for everything; it’s a very short walk from voter ID to prescriptions to claiming benefits to… what? You’d have to show your ID when applying for jobs? For exchanging properties? For renting? 

I’m often disappointed in the UK’s government actions; more often I’m upset by them. This proposal angers and disgusts me. 

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.

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Comments
  1. My concern during the Harper years in Canada was exactly this sort of issue. Now that the government in Canada’s changed, the worry has lessened because specific measures re: alternative forms of valid ID being restored to status quo ante Harper being taken if memory serves.

    The worry is not yet completely gone, of course.

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