Voter ID, another way the government is letting BME people down

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Talk of democratic rights and their importance has never been so popular. The government speaks animatedly about ‘respecting the referendum result’ and the sanctity of direct democracy. So why have they announced a move that will make it harder to vote and disenfranchise voters – especially BAME voters?

During the Queen’s Speech, where the government outlines its forthcoming priorities, they announced the Electoral Integrity Bill, which is meant to reduce electoral fraud. People will be required to show an approved photo ID at the polls before they can vote in general and local elections. This, on the face of it, might seem sensible, but when running voter ID trials during the local elections under previous PM Theresa May, 740 people (of 2,000) were turned away due to lack of ID and did not come back.

There are 3.5million citizens in the UK do not have access to photo ID and 11million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence. Ethnic minorities, the Roma and traveller community, young people, older people, homeless people and disabled people are less likely to have these forms of ID. 

Analysis has shown that ethnic minorities are less likely to have a driving licence than their white peers. 75 per cent of white people over 17 have driving licences, that falls to just over 50 per cent for black people.  Making changes that will hit ethnic minorities harder than white British people is discriminatory.   

The Windrush Scandal, where British subjects were wrongly detained, deported and denied their legal rights shows us what can happen when ID checks become a barrier between people and public services.  People were denied cancer treatment, lost their homes and lost their jobs as a result. To make sure specific groups aren’t being unfairly targeted by the introduction of voter ID, the government should have conducted an impact assessment.

So far, the voter ID trials carried out have not run in areas with large ethnic minority populations.  Worse still, the Right to Rent scheme, that requires landlord to check an ID before they can rent a property, has been ruled by the High Court as discrimination against anyone without a British passport and against ethnic minorities.  Instead of reflecting on this and reforming policy, the government is challenging the High Court and on top of this has announced voter ID requirements.

Unfair treatment can erode trust; if government policy is not working for everyone then the purpose of civic participation is not clear. This, coupled with making voting more cumbersome, could lead to a vicious cycle that facilitates the exclusion of minority communities. Voter ID will add further stumbling blocks in front of ethnic minorities and the ballot box for no discernible reason. V

oter registration rates and voting in elections is lower for ethnic minorities than white groups. According to the Electoral Commission, 85 per cent of white people were registered in 2015, whilst only 76 per cent of the black population who were eligible to vote were on the electoral register. In the 2017 general election, turnout among BAME voters is estimated to be 11 percentage points lower than the turnout among white voters. Some of this is due to a lack of information, changing address and Commonwealth citizens not knowing they are entitled to vote.

Last year, many civil society organisations, including us at The Runnymede Trust, backed a statement by the Electoral Reform Society outlining our concern about bringing in voter ID, not just for ethnic minorities, but also homeless people, disabled people, elderly people and young people. It’s concerning that a roll-out of this policy would be considered without consultation and more trials.  

When creating a menu of policies, political parties are driven, in part, by the electorate and their demands and desires. If more ethnic minorities, young people and disabled people are cut out of the electorate, there is a risk that government policies will be less reflective of their needs. And as it stands, some government policies are already working against ethnic minorities. The Windrush scandal and ‘Right to Rent’ are examples of that.

But research by The Women’s Budget Group and The Runnymede Trust also found that austerity measures have left ethnic minorities, particularly women, worse off than the white British population. Unfair treatment can erode trust; if government policy is not working for everyone then the purpose of civic participation is not clear. This, coupled with making voting more cumbersome, could lead to a vicious cycle that facilitates the exclusion of minority communities. We need more, not less ethnic minority participation in policy making.

The British Social Attitudes survey shows us that the vast majority of people in Britain think that it is important to live in a country that is governed democratically. Instituting voter ID requirements when there is no evidence of widespread fraud is undemocratic.  At a time of political crisis, the government should be trying to increase engagement in democracy, not hinder it.

Written by: Kimberly McIntosh

First published 15.10.19:


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