With the local elections now out of the way, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the introduction of Voter ID.
Although it will take some time to fully understand the impact the introduction of Voter ID had on the local elections, it did not take long before negative stories about voters being turned away from polling stations started to filter into the press.
Without wanting to venture into a debate about the pros and cons of the introduction of voter ID, I would like to highlight some of the issues which were brought under the spotlight as a result of the local elections and hope that we can learn our lessons from them moving forward.
Arguably, the introduction of the new rules came too fast and at too short notice for local authorities. Ensuring that elections can run smoothly is fundamental to upholding our democracy and there were calls from the local government sector at the end of last year warning that returning officers and electoral administrators needed longer to prepare, issue new guidance and ensure that systems were ready to cope with the change. While local councils did their best to highlight the changes (the rapping Chief Executive of Broadland and South Norfolk District Council being a prime example), there was still a lack of awareness among the public on polling day.
While most councils are reporting that the local elections were run smoothly, we cannot underestimate the importance of providing local authorities with the right level of time and resourcing in order to implement such significant changes to the operation of our democracy.
There has also been some debate as to whether the controversial new changes had been introduced in order to boost the Conservative vote. This line of argument is given weight when one considers the fact that Oyster cards for the over 60s were accepted however, younger persons rail cards and Oysters were not. In fact, Jacob Rees Mogg has stated this week at the National Conservatism Conference that the Government had made it hard for their own voters, when referencing the requirement to show ID.
We should be making it easier for the younger generation to participate in our political system, particularly considering that this demographic is becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics in this country. Speaking from my own personal experience of the local elections based on conversations with friends and family, the introduction of the rules only added an extra layer of complexity to the process and in some cases will have cemented their decision not to vote for fear of bringing the wrong information to the polling station.
It is therefore very discouraging to see the issue of Voter ID become something of a political football, and a mechanism that may only see turnout among the younger population decrease further. The introduction of the new rules has laid bare the fact that fundamentally Voter ID can discriminate and using the example of younger votes, it could lead one to believe the accepted forms of identification have been politically chosen. It is also concerning to see a lack of commitment from the Government to officially record the number of voters turned away from polling stations due to a lack of correct identification.
If we are to learn the lessons from the local elections prior to a forthcoming general election, there must be a strong political will from the government to raise awareness, provide local authorities with the correct toolkit to implement the change smoothly and to ensure political participation is encouraged rather than further complicated.
16th May 2023