Papers, Please

There’s a very obvious argument against the Tories’ decision to require photo ID in every polling station in the UK, as opposed to just in the north of Ireland – it is designed to stop people who would otherwise vote Labour from voting, while playing into a racist conspiracy theory, firmly rooted in the mainstream right-wing press, that Labour relies upon the illegitimately obtained or fraudulent votes of ethnic minority groups.

I say that it’s designed to do this because it is clearly imported from the US, where the Republicans have worked very hard to implement voter ID for explicitly partisan reasons, and with whom the current Tory government has strong links. The Tory proposals, in fact, mirror the most stringent Republican voter ID laws – many states that require ID do not require photo ID. And I say that it’s designed to do this because there is fairly strong evidence that voter ID laws (in the absence of free, easy, and universal photo ID) does indeed disproportionately suppress the vote of people who are poor, immigrants, and/or ethnic minorities, and the Tories know this just as well as I do. The connection to the US hasn’t been missed by American voting rights groups, either, three of whom took time out of their busy schedules of pushing an enormous boulder up a hill to criticise the Conservative party’s new ‘push the boulder down a hill’ policy.

“The real reason these laws are passed is to suppress the vote, and that is in fact what happens,” Caren Short, senior staff attorney with the SPLC, told the Guardian. “There are certain communities that do not possess the required ID, or the underlying documents required to get the ID, and so it makes it harder for those folks to vote. That is what these laws are designed to do, and that is in fact what they do.”

The US is a world leader in voter suppression tactics, and provides a sort of list of regional delicacies to look forward to. What’s on the menu down the line? Prosecuting people who organise voter registration campaigns if any of the subsequent registrations are incomplete or incorrectly filled-in, an innovative measure from the trailblazers in Tennessee? A cabinet official quoted in the article linked above promised The Guardian that “there will be free electoral ID available locally”. In Sauk City, Wisconsin, the only office where citizens could get that electoral ID was open in 2016 on the ‘fifth Wednesday of every month’. There were four such Wednesdays that year.

How to frame this criticism is less obvious, however, and one particularly common way of doing so confines the debate to territory on which the right is very comfortable. The surface justification of the Tories’ changes to voter ID is a clear and principled defence of democratic integrity. We all have the right to be assured that no fraudulent votes are cast, and the state has a duty to guarantee that democratic right. You can’t be too careful when something as important as democratic integrity’s at stake. A fairly easy way of framing the critique of this change, then, is to do something like the following: accept the principle that the state has a duty to secure democratic integrity by any means necessary, but focus on the partisan and targeted side-effects of the way in which that integrity is being secured.

That’s essentially the argument I gave above. That there is indeed a duty to make sure that there’s no funny business happening, but these measures are disproportionate (only one case of the relevant electoral offence was prosecuted in 2019) and will have predictable side effects of stopping poor and ethnic minority citizens from voting, because of who they would vote for. While this is a decent enough argument, it isn’t enough. The Tories and their supporters have a clear and hard-nosed argument of principle: even one case of fraudulent voting is too many – this is a matter of legitimacy, not a numbers game – and even the possibility of voter impersonation compromises something important. You can’t mess around with electoral integrity. Their critics respond with a more contingent, more consequentialist, more narrowly political argument, and look quite a lot like people arguing that the state doesn’t have the duty to safeguard electoral integrity by any means necessary.

They don’t need to. Safeguarding electoral integrity means ensuring that all and only eligible voters can vote if they want to do so. That’s the duty, that’s the relevant principle. The state has a duty internal to the institution of electoral democracy to ensure that nobody ineligible can vote, and that nobody eligible is prevented from voting if they choose to vote. This Tory policy will stop people voting who have the right to vote, and so it does not safeguard electoral integrity. The fact that they are failing in this duty in a targeted, reactionary manner makes this failure worse (breaking a promise to lend you a fiver is bad, breaking a promise not to racially discriminate in hiring is worse), and that fact is crucial to understanding why it’s in the Tories’ interests to compromise electoral integrity in this way (if this voter suppression is in the Tories’ interests, what does that say about the Tories?), but it’s downstream of the basic point. So why doesn’t this argument get made? Several options, in the form of responses:

Nobody is being prevented from voting, they just need to get ID.

People are being prevented from voting. There will be people who go to the polling station who will want to vote, and they will not be allowed to do so. Some of those people won’t have photo ID; some of them will have left it at home and won’t have the time to go back and get it; some of them will have been too poor to get a passport or a driving license, or too cash- or time-poor to get a bus to the office where you can get free ID, and so on and so on. It doesn’t matter why they don’t have ID: they will want to vote and be unable to do so.

If they really wanted to vote, they would’ve sorted out photo ID – after all, there’ll be a free version.

Safeguarding electoral integrity doesn’t mean allowing those people who really want to vote to do so, it means allowing everyone to vote if they choose to do so. The people above chose to do so and weren’t able to. Making something harder will stop people doing it – if it didn’t, then the stated purpose of the new legislation would be incoherent. After all, if I want to impersonate someone at the next election, I can steal the wallet of someone who looks like me or forge a photo ID card. It’s harder, so fewer people will do it.

But you already have to bear various costs in order to vote – going to the polling station, registering to vote before the deadline – how’s this one any different?

Those barriers do indeed compromise electoral integrity as well! Photo ID laws are bad in this basic sense because they’re another barrier, and will result in even more people who want to vote failing to do so. Anything that puts barriers between someone eligible thinking ‘I’d like to vote in this election’ and actually doing so will be a threat to electoral integrity, and the state has the unenviable job of 1) minimising the barriers for eligible voters, and 2) maximising those barriers for ineligible would-be voters, and doing both to the best of our organisational ability. There is no principled basis upon which to prioritise the latter over the former, and it’s certainly not the case that electoral integrity is safeguarded by prioritising the latter at any cost to the former.

The UK does surprisingly well (benefitting hugely from comparison to the US, admittedly) at the first job, and the idea that I can walk into a polling station, tell them my name, and vote is an important part of that. Better safeguarding electoral integrity will involve a complex judgement about the technology available to us (do we need to vote in person or by post?), the risk of fraudulent voting and the ways of preventing it that cause the least possible disruption to eligible voters (why can’t we automatically register people to vote?), and then special programmes to minimise that disruption as far as possible. But this isn’t weighing high-minded electoral integrity against claims of voter suppression, the terrain upon which the right would like to have this argument; voter suppression compromises electoral integrity.

To end, it’s worth restating something very important that also tends to get missed out in these discussions. It’s not just that it’s bad to prevent people from voting, or even that it’s bad to prevent people from voting when you know that those affected will be disproportionately from working class and ethnic minority backgrounds. Even if by some miracle everyone gets shipped free photo ID long before the next election, the fact that this change had to be made plays a role in a prevalent sort of right-wing conspiracy theorising: that the left is an illegitimate political force that, when it wins, wins only through the fraudulent cooperation of untrustworthy outsiders within. It is part of the UK right’s warm-and-heating-up war against what the French call ‘Islamo-leftism’. It’s the reason that I had the pleasure of being called a terrorist by lots of angry men all over Milton Keynes in December 2019, it’ll play its discursive role as soon as it starts getting debated in the papers and in parliament, and it will not stop at demands for photo ID.


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