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Why New Voter ID Legislation Risks Disenfranchising a Generation

Polling Station card tied to a bench
Photo Unsplash

The new voter ID legislation confirmed this week, may on the face of it seem like a subtle progression to voting regulation in the UK. Look a little closer and you’ll see that it could be one of the biggest steps to youth audiences becoming disenfranchised with government and a move to restrict young voters from having a voice.

Under new government rules, the Elections Act 2022, voters across the country will now be required to show photographic identification before they are handed their ballot paper. Much of the rhetoric around the decision has centred around the risk of fraud, however, very little evidence has supported that it’s an issue for the UK voting system. In the general election in 2019 despite millions of votes cast, just one police caution for using someone else’s vote took place.

Two cross-party parliamentary committees, one on human rights, the other on constitutional affairs, have raised concerns. Equally, the Scottish and Welsh governments don’t think it’s necessary and therefore, for local elections there it won’t be dictated. In many countries, voter ID is the norm, but remember, in the UK there is no standard, free and mandatory national ID card in existence (and the majority of the Conservative Party has voted against such an ID card system previous). So financially and practically accessing ID from the approved list is challenging. In the US, similar legislation from around 18 US states, who enacted laws that restrict access to the vote including harder voting ID, have come into play. Moves have served to undermine electoral integrity and decreased confidence in elections, with many heralding it a move to restrict voters based on race in the States.

Young people are already around 40% less likely to vote in the UK. Here’s why the new ID legislation is particularly oppressive for young people and those from lower socioeconomic groups.

The types of ID allowed

Passports and driving licences are expensive and not necessarily accessible to all voters. But for young people, there are some more concerning issues where it comes to what’s an ‘approved’ form of ID.

Student cards or university ID cards aren’t allowed and whilst travel cards for the over 60s are allowed, the same form of ID isn’t allowed for young people. What other options do young voters have?

The House of Lords voted by a large majority to accept all kinds of easier ID forms: library cards, bank statements, student ID to name a few. But this was struck out in the Commons for fear of voter impersonation. Which, as I’ve already covered, has never been a significant issue in the UK.

Types of ID…

  • A passport issued by the UK, Commonwealth or EEA state

  • A driving licence issued by the UK, Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or EAA state

  • A biometric immigration document issued by the UK

  • A Proof of Age Standards Scheme hologram card

  • A Ministry of Defence identity card

  • A concessionary travel pass, including an Older person’s Bus Pass, Disabled Person’s Bus Pass, Oyster 60+ Card, Freedom Pass, or one of several issued by the develolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

  • A disabled person’s blue badge

  • A national identity card issued by an EAA state

  • An electoral identity document or card

Layers of registration

Voter registration is not automatic, meaning that everyone who wants to vote has to register to do so, something that changed under David Cameron leading up to the EU referendum. This also meant that colleges/universities were unable to group register young voters, causing much criticism.

As well as registering, young people will now need to ensure they have their ID in place in time for the May elections, or they won’t be able to have a say. Even those who are financially able to undertake driving tests are waiting for long periods to take them, a knock-on from the pandemic and the backlog of passport approvals over the year at peak times is another example of systems not in place to handle any uplift in needs for approved ID.

Ironically, the free electoral identity document will be provided in physical A4 format only, with no digital or mobile app format. It’s almost like it’s a deliberate step to make it difficult for younger people to vote...

The reality

The practicality of getting things in place to support this change has come under fire too. Many councils have flagged that the training involved for all the volunteers around polling stations may be unfeasible in time for May, not to mention the lack of engagement publicly on what these changes mean.

The pilots demonstrated significant issues in 2018/19, with every station in the pilot having examples of people unable to vote because of ID and the data highlights the significant proportion of people that don’t then come back to vote once turned away. For young people, this could set them on a path for years to come and not seeing voting as something that is accessible to them.

In the US you can look to the work undertaken by Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight Action, around the work needed to tackle voting issues in Georgia; such as long lines, problematic voter registration, poor training of poll workers, all factors that limited participation, especially among minorities.

When We All Vote is the non-profit in the US set up in the wake of the Obama administration, to tackle the declining youth vote. I interviewed Jessica Blair on the Hear It Podcast about the campaigns they were doing to engage young people across the States on this very matter. The challenges of actually getting onto the electoral register and even seeing politics as something that is something that they can directly have a say over were some of the biggest challenges.

Youth voice and why it’s never needed support more

With changes to the ways in which you can protest in the UK, as well as this shift in voting legislation, young people wanting to have a say in wider society are at risk of being alienated.

Campaigns that simply tell young people to “use their vote” will fall massively short if they don’t engage young people and equip them to undertake their democratic rights.

If you’re within local government, higher education or other youth-facing organisations, this is something you should be thinking about now. How can you help youth audiences and more broadly those from lower socioeconomic groups, often marginalised communities, who may find the new legislation challenging? In fact, if you’re a big brand, this should be something you’re thinking about too because the success and progression of young people is not just a nice to do, it’s proven to have economic benefit. Understanding the issues affecting young people can inform your conversations with them and ultimately brand affinity.

More broadly, if you are looking at initiatives that target young people, are you integrating opportunities for youth voice to be engaged and heard? Are you proactively reaching through networks in place to hear from those that don’t come forward?

Whatever you do over the coming weeks and months, don’t write off youth audience as being hard to reach, unengaged or disinterested. It’s clear that their voice, the way in which they would vote and challenge are areas that many would like to control and limit… being able to tackle this would be significant to young people’s longer term engagement in politics and societal issues.

Some useful stats/links

  • Photo ID for voters came into place in Northern Ireland and there it was estimated that around 2.3% of the electoral vote were refused a vote for not presenting the required ID.

  • Young people are 40% less likely to vote. According to researcher Bobby Duffy, they are less likely to see it as a Civic duty

  • The government’s own research found that 4% of the GB population didn’t have photo ID in which they were recognisable. That’s around 1.9m

  • In the 2018/19 trials for photo ID, where people were turned away for not having the right/enough ID (around 3000), more than a third never came back

  • In Canada they have a vouching system, where a citizen who has an ID and appears on the electoral roll signs an affidavit confirming the identity of another voter who doesn’t have ID

  • In New Zealand, the Supreme Court has forced voting age onto the agenda, ruling that the current law amounts to age discrimination and ruled in favour of Make It 16 – a group campaigning for the voting age to change

  • Research from the Brennan Centre in the US shows that ID card provision often excludes voters with issuing offices open for limited hours, and requiring citizens to travel significant distances

  • Check out the News Agents podcast this week on voter ID registration

  • The Hear It Podcast back in 2021 with Jessica Blair from When We All Vote on youth campaigns in the US

Originally written for Comms2point0


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