The Government must not disenfranchise low-income voters at the polls
With a very real risk that the Government’s Elections Bill currently making its way through Parliament will disenfranchise around 1.7 million low-income voters, we urge the House of Lords to take a stand.
At JRF we firmly believe that people with experience of poverty can and should be active agents in social change, able to use their knowledge and insight to shape solutions. One of the most fundamental ways in which people can have their say on policies that directly affect their everyday lives is by voting in elections. No one should be prevented from being able to vote because of their income level. But there is a very real risk that the Government’s Elections Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, will disenfranchise around 1.7 million voters living on a low income.
The Elections Bill contains a range of changes to the conduct and administration of elections, and one of the most significant changes is the introduction of mandatory photo ID. If enacted, this will require voters to show photographic ID to vote at a polling station for UK parliamentary elections, local elections in England and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. Expired ID will still be accepted, provided that the photograph remains a good likeness of the elector, and voters who do not have an approved form of ID will be able to apply for a free Voter Card. The Government’s rationale for introducing voter ID is to prevent electoral fraud and update what they consider to be outdated security protections around identity at the polls, however, the extremely low levels of fraud in UK elections suggest that this is a solution looking for a problem. In 2019 there were 33 allegations of 'impersonation' at polling stations and only one conviction out of over 58 million votes cast.
On the face of it, you might think it doesn’t sound like a big change to be asked to show some ID when you cast your vote. But this requirement is going to make democratic participation even harder for people living on a low income. We know that people living on lower incomes are already less likely to vote and can feel disconnected and excluded from political processes. Requiring people to possess expensive ID (the £85 fee for a passport when you can’t afford to travel abroad certainly isn’t going to be an essential cost) or to apply for a free Voter Card puts up another barrier, at a time when we should be working to increase democratic engagement. It’s not easy, or necessarily going to be a priority, to apply to your local authority for a free Voter Card if you’re working in an insecure job with irregular, unpredictable and long hours, or juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet while also managing caring responsibilities and health needs. It’s also much harder to apply for a free Voter Card if you don’t have access to technology, or if previous interactions with your local council or job centre have created a feeling of fear and mistrust of the system.
The Elections Bill and these voter ID measures have already been approved by MPs, but now the Bill passes to the House of Lords where Peers will have the opportunity to consider and scrutinise the proposals. Ahead of the Second Reading in the House of Lords next Wednesday (23 February), JRF has undertaken new research looking at the disproportionate impact of voter ID on people living on low incomes (adults living in a household with an income under £30,000 gross per year) for the first time.
Our research shows that low-income potential voters are much more likely not to have photo ID compared to richer potential voters (1% compared to 6%). Combining those without photo ID with those who do have photo ID but say they would not be recognisable from the photo, around 1.7 million low-income adults would be prevented from voting under the new legislation.
The research also finds that only around half of those without photo ID, or recognisable photo ID, would apply for a free Voter ID card. 51% of low-income adults without photo ID, or recognisable photo ID, said that they would be likely to apply for an ID card to vote, and 41% said they were unlikely to, or unsure if they would. Overall, this risks around 700,000 low-income potential voters not voting due to ID requirements.
JRF are not alone in raising concerns that voter ID risks making it much harder for already marginalised groups of electorate to have their say. Organisations such as Crisis, Operation Black Vote, The Runnymede Trust, The Electoral Reform Society and many others have sounded the alarm. In recent months MPs sitting on Parliamentary committees on both human rights and constitutional affairs have also issued stark warnings that the voter ID proposals risk disproportionately disenfranchising groups of the electorate, including those on lower incomes.
As members of the House of Lords start to debate this piece of legislation next week, we’re urging them to heed these warnings and act to remove the voter ID proposals from the Bill.
The research referenced above was carried out by JRF on 10 January 2022 through an online panel survey representative of the UK with a total sample size of 6,000. Removing those in Northern Ireland, this provided a sample size of 5,929 adults for Great Britain.
Where we have extrapolated out to population level, we have used the Households Below Average Income (HBAI) Survey 2019/20 and included adults 18 years and over. This gave us a population of 50.1 million, with 16.5 million in a household with an income under £30,000 gross per year.