Another day, another group trying to pass legislation on the basis of perception.
The Electoral Commission is generous enough to preface its demand for voter identification at polling stations with the admission that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. But, in a now traditional refrain, it adds that something must anyway be done because "the public remain concerned that it is taking place".
That is not in itself problematic. Where confidence in the electoral system can be enhanced, one should be open to doing so. Unfortunately, the Commission's proposal would further disenfranchise young people, women, the poor and minorities.
Sometime before the 2019 European and English local elections the Commission will publish details of a proof of identity scheme and enact it. Its report makes frequent reference to Northern Ireland, where such a scheme is already in place. Northern Ireland uses the following options, which will almost certainly be replicated here:
- A UK, Irish or EEA driving licence (photographic part)
- A UK, Irish or EU passport
- A specified public transport pass
- An Electoral Identity Card issued by the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland
The most thorough data on the effect of voter ID comes from the US, where cynical Republicans have been deploying it to counter demographic changes which are not to their advantage. A particularly brutal example was recently introduced in Texas.
Analysis by the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University's law school found 11% of Americans lack a government-issued photo ID like a passport or driver's license. But here's the clincher: While just nine per cent of whites don't have one, 25% of blacks and 16% of Hispanics don't.
Younger minority voters are also poorer and more transient, so they are less likely to have a current address on their ID. They are also less likely to have access to the documents needed to get a valid ID.
The centre found that the cost of getting an ID card or birth certificate was often burdensome, as was the prospect of the time required to do so.
Women were particularly affected, not least because of taking matrimonial surnames and then potentially changing them back if they got divorced. This led to many identity documents carrying a different name to supporting documentation.
Students, who split their lives between two locations, were also often adversely affected.
All of these obstacles are, of course, surmountable. Students can use postal ballots to vote at home. Electoral voting cards can be made free of charge. Minorities can apply for passports. But they put an extra financial and time burden on voters who are least likely to vote. They work to discourage voting among the very groups we want to encourage.
It is all very well for the Electoral Commission to say that none of these problems reared their heads in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has a significantly different demographic make-up to England. There is no point comparing the effect there to the effect in urban London
The plan is also worryingly close to introducing a form of ID cards by the back door. It demands that citizens posses proof of identity before they may carry out their right to vote. It's a dangerous precedent.
One might be willing to accept these sacrifices if the Commission were addressing a pressing problem which threatened our democratic system. They are not. They, like Nick Robinson on immigration yesterday and Theresa May on health tourism last year, are addressing 'public perception'. One wonders what happened to the days when we passed law on the basis of verifiable fact.
The Commission's proposals take considerable democratic risks to solve a problem which does not exist.