Blink and you may have missed it, but in recent days there have been fresh attempts to alert the public to the Government’s new “voter ID” requirements for the local elections.
The “no photo ID, no vote” policy will kick in on polling day on 4 May and the tricky task of raising awareness of the controversial measure has fallen to the Electoral Commission.
You may have seen a small, one-page leaflet drop through your letterbox (though mine was pretty hard to spot amid the junk mail, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone). You may have seen a TV or press advert featuring a giant post-it note that states “Remember Photo ID To Vote”. But you may not.
Judging by the latest statistics from the Government, the message hasn’t really got through to those most at risk of being disenfranchised by the biggest change for decades to how we vote in Britain.
To help the estimated two million people who lack a passport, driving licence or any of the other photo ID required to take part in the elections, ministers came up with a new, free “Voter Authority Certificate” instead.
The final deadline for applications for the certificate, which needs a photo and National Insurance number, is now less than three weeks away on 25 April. Yet according to the Government’s daily dashboard, just 32,000 people had applied as of this week – less than 2 per cent of the number expected to lack the right ID.
Both younger and older voters, who are seen as most vulnerable to the new requirements, are even less likely to apply for the new certificate. So far, 1,429 people aged 75 or older have applied. For those hoping for a late surge in applications, the online platform looks more like a dashboard of doom every day.
Of course, what makes this even more difficult for older people is that the application process is mainly online. As I’ve pointed out before, more than three million people over-65 have no access to the internet because they lack a computer, smartphone or broadband.
It’s possible to apply by post, but in one of those classic Catch-22 situations only Whitehall can dream up, the Government has put the form online to be downloaded and then printed off. Postal applications have to be sent to local electoral registration offices, but how do you find out what the postal address is? Yep, you go online to “electoralcommission.org.uk/voter”.
Communities Minister Lee Rowley told MPs in February that “there is no requirement for a person to be computer literate or to go through online processes to acquire a voter authority certificate”. He said alternatives had been used and “I have data on them” – yet when I asked his department for that data, I was told it is not yet ready for publication.
Of course, ministers had been warned about all this. The Government’s own official “impact assessment” last October stated that of those who lacked photo ID, “approximately 29 per cent probably or definitely would not apply for the Voter Authority Certificate”.
And that same assessment pointed out that a Cabinet Office study had found that “older populations (those aged 50-69 and 70+) were more likely than people overall to report that the introduction of identification at polling stations will make it quite difficult or very difficult to vote”.
Yes, you read that right: older people explicitly warned this would make it harder for them to vote.
For some, the simplest way to avoid the threat of disenfranchisement is to just get a postal vote. In fact, postal voting has steadily increased in popularity for people of all ages in recent years and political parties know that these are a prized electorate as they definitely vote (often sending back their ballot the same day that they get it).
But there’s a little noticed change that is another feature of the 2022 Elections Act: the end of indefinite postal votes.
Whereas previously anyone granted a postal vote had one forever, now they have to apply for eligibility all over again every three years. That’s an extra hurdle to elderly voters in particular, removing the automaticity of their voting rights, and involving yet more form filling.
Crucially, the Government is also putting postal vote applications online too. And once more there is a danger that those who lack a computer could be seriously disenfranchised.
The official position states: “All applicants will continue to have the opportunity to apply for an absent vote via a paper application should they prefer or if they are unable to apply online.” But just how well staffed and well publicised will that postal process be?
Older people who lack the internet are already seeing shrinking access to basic services such as council tax rebates, train tickets and car parking. Making it harder, not easier, to exercise their fundamental right to vote is a truly worrying prospect.
Meanwhile, there was fresh evidence this week that the whole point of this entire voter ID exercise – to prevent potential fraud at the polling station – has little data to support it. The latest figures found there was not a single proven case of in-person voter impersonation last year.
Given the patchwork nature of this year’s local elections and voter apathy generally, the real test of the impact on turnout may not come on 4 May. It may be the next general election when people of all ages really wake up to the changes.
One thing is for sure. If older people find themselves not just digitally excluded from society but democratically excluded too, we’ll all be the poorer for it.