Just 85,000 voters signed up for the Government’s free photo ID – out of a potential two million. Now we may not find out the true scale of ‘voter suppression’, Josiah Mortimer reports
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Watchdogs and civil society could be left in the dark over the true number of how many voters are turned away for lacking photo ID in England’s elections next week.
Thursday will see all voters told to bring photo ID or be turned away at the ballot box. Polling staff will have to record those who are turned away after speaking to them – but many more may turn away before going inside the polling station, after being reminded by ‘greeters’ or signs outside of the need for ID. These people will not be recorded.
Now a senior MP has written to the chair of the elections watchdog to raise concerns about the accuracy of the data due to be collected on voter turnout at the local elections.
Labour MP Clive Betts, chair of Parliament’s Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHC) Committee, has asked Electoral Commission boss John Pullinger for clarity around the data to be collected on the number of people who will be turned away for not presenting the necessary voter ID.
Betts is calling for the Electoral Commission to confirm that it will be collecting data on the number of individuals turned away outside of polling stations by meeter-greeters, as well as voters turned away when they reach the front desk.
A “significant number” of local authorities plan to use meeter-and-greeters stationed outside polling stations to support the implementation of voter ID.
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But Betts’ fears have been brushed off in the House of Commons during an urgent question. He told Byline Times: “It’s a mess. The minister got in a complete tangle over it. This hasn’t been thought through. They won’t have any idea of the true numbers turned away. It will be duff data.”
He added that it will most likely be the “busiest” polling stations which will have meeter-greeters and that he was doubtful that ministers would rethink the policy. “The Government is set in its ways. They hide behind the Electoral Commission.”
Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, has previously warned of the potential for large numbers of disenfranchised voters to go unrecorded.
A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission confirmed to Byline Times that its data from the day would not include those who are turned away by meeter-greeters.
“Under the law, polling station staff need to collect data on the people that cannot be issued with a ballot paper because they were unable to provide an accepted form of ID,” they said. “This includes data on people who are turned away and later return to the polling station with accepted ID. This information can only be recorded at the ballot issuing desk, and not gathered by a greeter at the entrance.”
They added that the presence of a greeter at a polling station is “likely to affect the data recorded at the desk”. For this reason, local authorities will need to separate out data for polling stations with and without greeters when submitting data after the polls.
In its reporting on voter ID, the Electoral Commission will separate data from polling stations with so-called greeters from those without them – effectively sidelining the results from local authorities which have staff or volunteers stationed outside.
“We will be reporting on data from polling stations on the proportion of people turned away from polling places or refused a ballot paper, and those who returned and were able to vote,” the spokesperson added. “This won’t reflect information collected by greeters.”
Both sets of data will be published on the Electoral Commission website.
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said “there are many reasons people choose to turn away” at the polling station and that “it’s impossible to measure this with any accuracy” and “we don’t think it would be accurate”.
The official added that there will be national, representative, public opinion surveys done to assess how many people were put off voting by the voter ID requirement.
Asked how many voters turned away would be too many, the spokesperson said “I’m not going to speak on that. We want everyone to participate if they are capable of doing so.”
Downing Street has previously used the example of Northern Ireland – where ID is mandatory for voting – to justify its policy of extending it to the whole of the UK for general elections (and locals in England).
However, voter ID in Northern Ireland was introduced after hundreds of proven cases and convictions of organised voter fraud on sectarian lines after The Troubles. This is not the case in England – where there was just one proven case of personation fraud in 2022.
Awareness of the plans also remain worryingly low.
More than half of people – 52% – surveyed in an Omnisis poll commissioned by Byline Times last week said that they received no information from their local council about the new voter ID 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.
Nearly one in five (18%) of those surveyed by Omnisis said they were 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 was highest in south-west England and Yorkshire & the Humber (both at 23% unaware). The findings tally with other pollsters’ findings in recent weeks.
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.
There are also 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.
Labour refused to say whether it would repeal the ID requirements if in government, when asked by Byline Times last week.
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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