A last-minute rush is unlikely to be enough to prevent large numbers of people being effectively disenfranchised on 4 May, Josiah Mortimer reports
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Democracy groups are mounting a final push to ensure thousands of people are not turned away from the ballot box in England next Thursday as controversial new voter ID requirements come into force.
As of 24 April, around 80,000 people in England have applied for a new free form of photo ID ahead of the mega-round of local elections on 4 May, which will see voters told to bring a “valid” form of identification or be turned away.
Roughly 5,000 people applied for the free ID in the 24 hours to 1:30pm Tuesday (24 April) – suggesting a last-minute surge that is likely to put local councils under strain. Each application takes around six minutes for a council official to process.
But, despite this, there are around two million Brits who lack the right kind of photo ID, according to the Government’s own figures – meaning just a fraction of the total have signed up for the new Voter Authority Certificate.
Awareness of the plans also remain worryingly low.
More than half of people – 52% – surveyed in an Omnisis poll commissioned by Byline Times said they received no information from their local council about new voter identification requirements – with little over a week to go before polling day. The figures have budged little in recent weeks, suggesting public information campaigns are struggling to cut through.
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And nearly one in five (18%) of those surveyed say they are unaware of the new requirements, which will apply not just to local elections in England but all general elections, as well as police and crime commissioner votes in England and Wales.
The lack of awareness is highest in south-west England and Yorkshire & the Humber (both at 23% unaware). The findings tally with other pollsters’ findings in recent weeks.
Asked by Byline Times about the low take-up of the free voter identification scheme, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We would encourage anyone who hasn’t taken the possibility of securing a voter authority certificate to do so. I know tens of thousands already have, and that 98% of people already have eligible forms of ID.”
The 98% figure includes photo ID that is out of date and unrecognisable – the latter of which would mean the voter would be unable to get a ballot paper (out of date ID will be accepted).
According to Ipsos Mori polling for the Local Government Information Unit last week, 12% of voters say they are most likely to bring a form of ID with them to the polling station that is not allowed under the new rules, such as their polling card or a utility bill.
And 30% of people wrongly think that a polling card will be accepted as ID, while 23% believe a council tax bill will be accepted – raising fears that many legitimate voters will be turned away on polling day.
The UK Democracy Network – which brings together hundreds of civil society groups – has heard from leading organisations working with under-represented people and groups who they fear will be negatively affected by new photo ID requirements.
Organisations campaigning for disability rights, migrant rights, those with low incomes and black and ethnic minorities communities attended a recent voter ID meeting where they reported a fear that people may be turned away from polling booths and discouraged from voting with the new photo ID requirements.
Councillor Valerie Bossman-Quarshie, liaison director at the Black Policy Institute, said: “The disenfranchisement of black British people has created a culture of distrust when it comes to voting. Data shows us that many black communities already face digital exclusion and photo ID changes could make this disenfranchisement even worse than it already is.”
Lara Parizotto, co-director of the Migrant Democracy Project, added that photo ID will reduce “much-needed democratic engagement” from groups already under-represented in politics.
Dr Simon Duffy, president of the Citizen Network, told the event that for people with learning disabilities electoral politics often feels like an “alien world” and that “the new ID rules simply reinforce the idea that politics is just for an elite group”.
For Jessie Joe Jacobs, director of UK Democracy Network, “at a time when trust in democracy is at an all-time low, we should be seeing moves to strengthen democracy and give more people an ability to elect and hold our politicians to account, instead we are seeing a regressive move, which will only weaken democracy not strengthen it”.
A recent Local Government Information Unit panel heard concerns that observers “will not know the impact of voter ID, either in general or on specific minority groups until scientific research has taken place in the months after these elections” – or even after several electoral cycles, such as the next general election.
A Democracy Network spokesperson added: “Today is a crucial day as we approach the local elections, [with] the deadline to apply for both a Voter Authority Certificate and a proxy vote.”
There are also growing fears that the number of people turned away at May’s local elections could provoke arguments in polling booths across England, with police being alerted to the risk of a spike in disputes and confrontations, as reported by the Guardian.
The deadline to sign up for a free voter authority certificate, or a proxy vote if needed, is 5pm on Tuesday 25 April.
Labour refused to say whether it would repeal the mandatory ID requirements if in government, when asked by Byline Times last week. Deputy Leader Angela Rayner has however accused the Conservatives of being “recklessly slow in making voters aware of the new expensive and unnecessary” rules.
The polling for Byline Times was conducted online by Omnisis in the two days up to 21 April. 1,318 GB adults took part in the poll, which was weighted to ensure it was representative of demographics such as gender, region, age group and voting intention.
If you have a political or social story that needs telling, get in touch with Byline Times’ Chief Reporter Josiah Mortimer confidentially by emailing email@example.com.
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