By Andrew MacAskill, Kylie MacLellan and Sachin Ravikumar
LONDON (Reuters) – More than 13,000 people were denied a vote in English local elections this month because of the government’s new identification law, with those in poorer areas most impacted, according to a Reuters survey of local authorities.
Voters in England were legally required to produce photo ID for the first time at the May 4 elections, with the government saying it was essential to combat election fraud.
But the overhaul was criticised by many opposition politicians and campaigners who said it was intended to suppress turnout and was disproportionate to the historically low levels of in-person electoral fraud in Britain.
Furthermore, Jacob Rees-Mogg – a government minister when the law was passed – said last week that the move had affected elderly voters who traditionally voted for the governing Conservative Party, indicating that it had also hoped for a different outcome.
“Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections,” he told the National Conservatism conference.
Reuters collected data from 202 of the 230 authorities in England that held elections, in which the governing Conservative Party suffered heavy losses. The remaining 28 were either still compiling the figures or did not respond to Reuters’ request.
Out of the top 20 councils that turned away voters, 15 were among the most deprived areas in England as measured by the government’s deprivation index, the survey found.
Clive Betts, an opposition Labour Party politician and chair of a parliamentary committee which will look at the new rules, said they were “undermining and undervaluing our democracy.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are encouraged by the roll-out and we are confident the vast majority of voters will have cast their vote successfully”.
ACTUAL IMPACT COULD BE HIGHER
Betts also said the total number prevented from voting would likely be much higher because some who do not have ID did not bother to turn up at polling stations.
Reuters’ findings showed 33,509 people were initially denied a ballot paper at polling stations because they did not have the required ID. Of those, more than 20,000 later returned with the correct ID and 13,085 did not.
The data was compiled from information published online, as well as requests by phone, email and under the Freedom of Information Act.
It was not possible to produce a national figure for the percentage of voters at polling stations denied the right to vote as some local authorities only provided total turnout, including postal votes which did not require ID.
In cases where councils did, only a small proportion of the overall voter base were turned away with a mean of 0.24% across 98 local authorities.
Turnout at local elections is usually much lower than at national elections and Labour’s Betts warned that unless the rules were changed, a larger number of people could struggle to vote at a national election expected next year.
Neil Halliday, 51, a project worker from central England, said he didn’t go to the polling station to vote because he was unable to locate his voter ID before leaving for work on the day of the election for Fenland Council.
“I was angry,” Halliday, who wanted to vote for an independent candidate in his area, told Reuters. “I wrote to the MP and utilised words that were quite coarse and suggested that they look at how well this is working … I was very hacked off.”
WRONG ID, NO ID
Knowsley, an area the government ranked as the third-most deprived in England in 2019, had the highest percentage unable to vote, with 1.1% of those at polling stations not producing the correct ID by the close of voting, Reuters found.
Terry Byron, a councillor for the Labour Party in the area, said he had come across younger people who did not turn up to vote because they did not have ID, while elderly voters were more likely to go to the polling station and be denied.
Byron said this may have impacted the outcome of some elections because in his area his party lost one seat by only 79 votes.
Walsall, which the government says is among the 10% most deprived areas in England, was the local authority with the highest overall number of people who could not vote, with 767 of those turned away at polling stations not returning.
Rushmoor and South Oxfordshire, two wealthier constituencies, were among those with the lowest proportion of people turned away, the survey found.
Britain’s voting regulator, the Electoral Commision, will publish its initial findings of a review of voter ID in June.
The government also intends to toughen the rules around postal voting and requirements for those who apply to vote on behalf of someone else.
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Kylie MacLellan and Sachin Ravikumar. Editing by Kate Holton and Hugh Lawson)