Dr Ben Stanford, expert in public law and human rights, finds a murky picture but some clear signs of disenfranchisement.
Show us your ID or you’re not coming in? Sounds more like a nightclub than a polling station, doesn’t it? But that was what was happening across Liverpool and the country when people went to the polls earlier this month.
The May 2023 local elections, held across 230 councils in England, were the first since the Elections Act 2022 stipulated a new requirement on the right to vote; the presentation of photographic identification. The legal change, purportedly to crack down on fraud, has generated much controversy with suggestions of gerrymandering and voter suppression, particularly among younger and more left-wing voters.
As data begins to emerge about voter turnout and the number of individuals refused a ballot paper, we can start to assess the impact of voter ID in Liverpool and across the country.
My initial reflections here are based on official statistics, including those recently issued by Liverpool City Council, a survey I issued to LJMU students prior to the elections, and my own observations in polling stations across the area on the day of the elections.
Beginning with turnout which is generally always low in local elections, Liverpool City Council data revealed that 27.27% of eligible individuals voted in the May elections. This is a slight decrease from 30.85% in 2021 and 27.33% in 2019. Whilst the factors which influence turnout are always complex and varied, critics of voter ID will seize upon the reduced turnout, whilst some may cite other reasons contributing to the decrease such as voter apathy in light of recent political controversies in the city.
Perhaps more troubling is the data concerning voters refused a ballot paper. In Liverpool, statistics show that 516 voters were initially refused a ballot paper, and of those, 278 later returned with accepted identification but 238 did not. This means that approximately 0.4% of all voters who attended a polling station in Liverpool were unable to cast their vote due to lacking accepted identification. Whilst this may seem small, if the same proportion of people who voted in the 2019 General Election were unable to due to lacking identification, the figures would be more alarming. Taking the Liverpool Riverside constituency, for example, which had a 65.7% turnout at the 2019 General Election, if 0.4% of these voters were turned away for lacking accepted identification this would mean that over 200 individuals would have been unable to vote in one constituency alone. To put that into context, in the 2019 General Election, five constituencies were won by less than that margin.
"If the same proportion of people who voted in the 2019 General Election were unable to, the figures would be more alarming."
Probing the recent local elections further, of all wards across Liverpool, the worst affected were Anfield, Dingle, Norris Green and Smithdown. In Smithdown, 28 voters were initially refused a ballot paper and of those 20 did not return. In Anfield, 20 were initially refused and 13 did not return. In Norris Green 30 were initially refused and 12 did not return, whilst in Dingle 16 were initially refused and 10 did not return. As some of the most deprived areas in Liverpool as well as being popular areas for students in the city, critics will once more seize upon these figures and suggest that the introduction of voter ID has a disproportionate impact on marginalised members of society and younger people.
Nationally, according to the BBC, data from 160 councils shows that 26,165 individuals were initially refused a ballot paper. Of those, 16,588 later returned with accepted identification whereas 9,577 did not. Overall, data from these councils shows that the percentages of people turned away were generally less than 1%. Echoing these figures to some extent, observations and data recorded by Democracy Volunteers shows that 1.2% of all voters observed were turned away due to a lack of accepted identification, with the majority of these being from ethnic minorities. The Electoral Commission is expected to publish more comprehensive official data and analysis shortly after gathering statistics from all councils.
My own survey results and observations at polling stations appear to corroborate these results to some extent. First, my recent survey which polled LJMU students about their voting intentions, characteristics and possession of identification revealed that a sizeable minority were unaware of the recent reforms and the need to show photo identification, and a very small minority did not possess any form of accepted identification. Second, whilst observing voters in Liverpool, and also further afield in Birkenhead, Ellesmere Port and Ormskirk, I personally witnessed one voter refused a ballot paper due to a lack of accepted identification and numerous individuals complaining about the need to bring identification. Polling station staff I spoke to on the day also told me that some voters had already been turned away earlier for bringing the wrong (or no) identification.
Ultimately, these statistics and observations must be viewed with extreme caution and may be significantly under representative of the true number of people unable to vote. This is because it is not possible to record how many individuals simply chose not to attend a polling station at all because they didn’t ‘qualify’, or how many turned away before entering after interacting with staff or political party tellers, or seeing signs warning about the need for identification. A more complete picture will emerge at the next General Election, expected to be held at some point in 2024, when voter turnout will be much higher.
Dr Ben Stanford, School of Law.
If you have any comments or personal experiences about the implementation of voter ID, please get in touch! My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.