Does the UK's photo ID plan put marginalised voters at risk?

by Sharon Kimathi and Rachel Savage | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 May 2021 12:28 GMT

Voters enter a polling station during local elections in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain May 6, 2021. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

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Plans to make Britons show a photo ID before voting could disenfranchise members of ethnic minorities, LGBT+ people and the homeless, say critics

By Sharon Kimathi and Rachel Savage

LONDON, May 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Marginalised groups in Britain including ethnic minorities and the homeless risk losing their right to vote due to government plans that would require people to show a photo ID before voting, campaigners and lawmakers said.

Critics fear the proposal - presented in parliament on Tuesday as a way to tackle voter fraud - could disenfranchise people who are less likely to have an ID with a photograph, such as a driving licence or passport.

That could also deter voting among the young, pensioners, the disabled and members of the Roma and Traveller community.

A range of photographic documents would be accepted at polling stations - not just passports and driving licences, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said.

"Showing identification to vote is a reasonable approach to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud in our current system and strengthen its integrity," she said by email.

Britain's Electoral Commission estimates that 92.5% of the electorate would have one of the required forms of ID, but that would still leave out almost 3.5 million voters.

Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Diane Abbott called the plan - which must be approved by parliament - "a straightforward case of voter suppression", and said voter fraud was rare.

According to data from the Electoral Commission, police investigated 15 cases of voter fraud in 2020 and only three remain under investigation.

Here's what activists and lawmakers say the proposal could mean for vulnerable Britons if it is passed by parliament:

Black, Asian and minority groups

According to a report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published in November last year, 25% of Black Britons are not registered to vote compared to the national average of 17%.

When the government first announced the photo ID plan in 2019, the Commission voiced concern over the "potentially racial discriminatory impact" of the proposals.

Equality think-tank the Runnymede Trust said they were likely to have a disproportionate impact on Black and minority ethnic (BME) people.

"The government's own data shows that white people are most likely to hold one form of photo ID – 76% hold a full driving licence. But 38% of Asian people, nearly a third of people of mixed ethnicity (31%), and more than half of Black people (48%) do not," the group said in a report late last year.

Labour lawmaker Marsha De Cordova said voter ID would "lock millions of people out of democracy - in particular Black, Asian and ethnic minority voters, who are less likely to have, or be able to afford, photo ID."

LGBT+ people

Requiring voters to show a photo ID will add bureaucratic hurdles and costs to people who already face inequalities and are already less likely to be able to afford a passport or driving licence, LGBT+ rights campaigner said. 

"This will particularly impact LGBT+ people of colour, those of us who are working-class, homeless and/or disabled as well as trans, non-binary and gender diverse people who may not have ID which matches their gender or how they look," said Eloise Stonborough, policy director at advocacy group Stonewall.

"Requiring people to show ID to vote is unfair and adds a huge barrier to many people's ability to vote," Stonborough added in emailed comments.

Transgender rights advocates expressed concern that trans people may be turned away from voting if they look different from their photo IDs.

"A trans person whose physicality has changed may be unable to update their photo ID, to make it more congruent with their current appearance, through lack of money to do so," Cara English of Gendered Intelligence said by email.

She added that some trans people who are able to change their ID to reflect their gender may have to present themselves differently to how they appear on the ID on voting day "to avoid public scrutiny or attack".

Homeless people

Housing charities say the ID requirement could make it even harder for homeless people to vote.

"When you're living out of a rucksack, whether on the streets, in hostels or shifting between friends' sofas, important documents like ID can frequently get lost or stolen," said Jon Sparkes, who heads the homeless charity Crisis.

"With replacement costly, it can cause people a lot of difficulty claiming benefits, accessing healthcare and opening bank accounts."

Homeless people in Britain can vote, provided they state a place where they spend a good amount of time, such as a night shelter, or even the closest address to a park bench or doorway.

Yet only about 3,000 people used the mechanism to vote in 2016, according to local media - only a fraction of the more than 200,000 people that charities estimate as homeless.

"Registering to vote while homeless is already complicated but with the right support, anyone who has the right to vote in this country can do so," Sparkes said. "Legally requiring voters to show photo ID puts that in jeopardy." 

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(Reporting by Sharon Kimathi and Rachel Savage; Additional reporting by Umberto Bacchi in Tbilisi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org”)

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