If you find yourself in the charming Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden at certain times of the year, you might be intrigued to see large numbers of people toting swords in the central square. Why? You might not know it, but they’re proving their right to vote. When you go away and say you’ll never understand the Swiss, just spare a thought for Great Britain, which has an even more curious system for determining whether those claiming the right to vote actually have it: none. (Note that I said Great Britain, not the United Kingdom: Northern Ireland has had a voter ID requirement since 1985, with few complaints and a great reduction in voting fraud).
In next month’s local elections a pilot scheme will require electors to produce ID (this being defined in a very generous way) in five areas: Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Watford and Swindon. The Labour Party predictably raised high-minded objections to this rather sensible proposal, saying it would lead to widespread disenfranchisement. Six weeks ago Ollie Wright on TCW pointed out that these complaints were not only ill-informed but rang rather hollow when compared with Labour’s own fairly demanding requirements for those seeking to vote on party matters. He also made the point that there had previously been evidence of widespread electoral fraud, albeit not formally reported.
He was, of course, absolutely correct. But it’s not only the Labour Party, which presumably thinks its client base more likely to be affected than its competitors’, which climbs on this bandwagon. Voter ID has turned into something more like a tribal fight between the Leftish establishment and the rest of us. Early last month the Electoral Reform Society (a body whose idea of preserving the integrity of the electoral process includes the introduction of a legal requirement for parties to field equal numbers of men and women, whatever the electorate might want) joined the fray. It co-ordinated a letter from such varied organisations as Stonewall, Liberty, the Migrants’ Rights Network, the Runnymede Trust and Voice4Change, which was an interesting document. The letter admitted that few if any would be unable to obtain the necessary documentation but said the plan might nevertheless reduce the numbers voting and act as a deterrent to democracy. Quite why this should be a matter of particular concern to charities such as Stonewall is unclear (it seems odd that access to documentation should have anything to do with sexual orientation): but we can leave it at that.
More interesting by far, however, is a letter sent last week by a taxpayer-funded agency, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to the Minister responsible, David Lidington. This was it seems a private letter (it does not appear on a search of the Commission’s website), and was signed not by the director but by a legal functionary there. We know about it because it was leaked to the Observer – whether the mole was in the Commission or the Ministry we are not told, but the smart money must be on the former.
In it the suggestion is made in impeccable legalese that any requirement of Voter ID ‘will have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly older people, transgender people, people with disabilities and/or those from ethnic minority communities’. A number of comments come to mind. First, one wonders how carefully thought-out this communication was. Apart from possible complications with a driving licence, the idea of a difference in ability to provide ID between a fit and a disabled person is implausible. So too with a younger and an older person. Between an ordinary and a transgender person the idea that the latter will in the nature of things suffer from a comparative lack of identifying documentation is simply preposterous. Secondly, it is somewhat odd that what is essentially an attack on a serious aspect of government policy should have been sent by a mere legal officer rather than by someone at the top, and sent as a private letter rather than appearing as a public statement by the Commission. Thirdly, the timing is worthy of note. The government’s proposals for a voter ID pilot were published seven months ago: yet this attack from what is, after all, a government agency appeared a mere two weeks before the elections at a time calculated to cause maximum enbarrassment and possible disruption.
The suspicion must be strong that this is not so much a disinterested intervention in the interests of the rule of law, as a carefully timed and orchestrated attempt by a body with an agenda of its own to derail what it sees, for better or worse, as a policy with which it viscerally disagrees. If it is, it won’t be the first time that the EHRC has leapt head-first into the political arena, and we can be fairly sure it won’t be the last.