LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of homeless people and minority groups in Britain could be blocked from voting in national elections if government plans requiring voters to show photo identification go ahead, civil society groups warned on Tuesday.
The proposal requiring all citizens to present photo ID to vote were outlined by Queen Elizabeth on Monday during the so-called Queen’s Speech, which sees the politically-neutral monarch set out the government’s annual agenda.
The plans, if approved into law, would come into effect ahead of the next scheduled general election in 2022 in a bid to stop electoral fraud, a Cabinet Office spokeswoman said, but the move has sparked concerns about disenfranchisement.
“These plans are set to leave tens of thousands of legitimate voters voiceless and hit some groups much harder than others,” said Jess Garland, director at the Electoral Reform Society, a campaign group promoting democracy and voter rights.
“There remains no evidence of widespread impersonation at the ballot box yet the government continues to cynically pursue this ‘show your papers’ policy knowing full well the potential impact across the country.”
About 45 million people voted in the last general election in 2017 with one conviction of fraud, according to Britain’s Electoral Commission, an independent regulatory body.
The Cabinet Office spokeswomen said Northern Ireland voters had shown photo ID at polling stations since 2003 and successful trials took place in five UK local authorities in 2018.
“Electoral fraud is an unacceptable crime that strikes at a core principle of our democracy. Showing ID to vote is a reasonable and proportionate way to protect our elections,” the Cabinet Office spokeswoman said in a statement.
Any voter who does not have an approved form of ID, such as a passport or driving license, will be able to apply, free of charge, for a local electoral ID from their local authority, according to government plans.
About 3.5 million people in Britain had none of these types of photo ID, according to a 2015 Electoral Commission report.
Civil rights groups, including the Salvation Army, homeless charity Centrepoint and Liberty, last year issued a letter warning compulsory voter ID would disproportionately impact the homeless, those without a permanent address, and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups (BAME).
Clare Collier, advocacy director at civil rights group Liberty, said the risk of electoral fraud was being used as an excuse for greater surveillance of the British public.
The reforms are now subject to debate by parliament, concluding with a vote for approval next week.
“Voter ID is likely to damage election turnout and will worst affect those who are already disadvantaged - including young people, older people, disabled, transgender, BAME communities and homeless people,” she said.
Reporting by Adela Suliman @Adela_Suliman; editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org for more stories.