And election experts have warned of battles at the ballot box if people are denied a vote, Josiah Mortimer reports
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The government has rebuffed calls to delay or scrap the introduction of mandatory voter ID in two weeks – despite fears that thousands of people could be turned away from polling stations across England.
Around 70,000 people have so far applied for local councils’ free Voter Authority Certificate. But an estimated two million people across Britain are understood to lack an acceptable form of photo identification, according to the government’s own figures – meaning only 3.5% of those without ID have used the service.
The Liberal Democrats have called for the mandatory identification policy to be scrapped amid concerns thousands will effectively lose their ability to vote, while many more will forget their ID and not return.
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It follows a warning from the independent Local Government Association not to underestimate the difficulties voter ID will cause for local authorities.
Liberal Democrat Spokesperson Helen Morgan MP called the plans a “national scandal that could end in a disaster for our democracy.”
She has proposed a backbench bill which would end the policy before polling day – though it stands no chance of going through without government support.
On Wednesday, the PM’s official spokesperson rejected concerns over people losing their vote, telling Byline Times:: “98% of people have photo ID…There have been a thousand applications for free ID in the last day….There are huge numbers of people applying.”
The 98% figure is misleading as it includes ID that is not recognisable – one of several official reasons that voters could be denied a ballot on the day. When only valid, recognisable ID is included the figure is 96% – affecting many thousands more when spread out over the whole electorate.
When pressed, the PM’s spokesman added: “There are no plans to delay the implementation.”
A Labour spokesperson would not confirm if the party wanted the plans delayed or scrapped, saying: “We’ve set out our objections to voter ID on a range of issues…I’d make the point that the way that voters can avoid [it] is to apply for a postal vote”
Last week, Dr Greg Stride, a researcher from the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), told Byline Times councils were under enormous pressure.
“Election teams consist of 4 to 4.5 members of staff…They don’t see their families during elections. These are teams with significant pressures. Voter ID adds a whole bunch of new issues.
“There are big areas including staffing, which have been getting harder. Some staff will have stopped doing elections due to the pandemic. The need for more training and so on puts some off.”
He said many council democracy service teams will be working “80 hour weeks for six weeks in a row” and now have to implement voter ID for the first time on top of their pressures.
The Electoral Commission has recommended that every polling station has at least one female staffer in the polling station or on hand for checking identification beneath Muslim women’s veils. Some councils are also preparing for the prospect of discontent or abuse of staff if people are “unfairly” turned away for lacking the right ID.
“West Yorkshire police will be increasing their involvement to make sure there’s no possibility of unrest,” Dr Stride said, adding: “Violence is on the radar – it is worth looking out for additional police.”
The election expert described the new Voter Authority Certificates being implemented by councils as “a major issue behind the scenes”. There are currently only around 1,000 applications per day, but two million people lack ID. The deadline to apply for a free VAC is 5pm on 25 April 2023.
The Government believes administering each VAC takes six minutes per application. “That’s fine for ten applications locally in a day. But say they get 1,000, two days before the elections, that’s 6,000 minutes of extra work, handled by small teams. That could pull them away from other duties,” he added.
The government has given new money for extra staff, accounting for one extra poll clerk per polling station to administer the ID checking. But there is no funding for them to be paid any more. “Incentivisation is not improving, and it will be up to each council on pay,” Dr Stride said, meaning councils are likely to crash through their budgets.
Some polling stations may have moved to accommodate having private spaces to check some people’s ID.
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