The Government has formally unveiled a plan to carry out pilot ID checks at polling stations across the country. Ministers claim that electoral fraud, intimidation and impersonation are endemic in the UK electoral system.
Voters will be expected to provide ‘valid’ ID such as a passport or driving licence as proof of identity when voting in person. Yet evidence by the independent Electoral Commission concludes that the extent of fraud in our elections has been over-stated. True, there have been cases in one London borough Tower Hamlets and in a dozen wards in the Midlands in 2012, but across the North there’s been not one proven case of ‘electoral malpractice’.
Voter checks may appear attractive, but the impartial Institute of Digital Democracy believes that tackling fraud, which is negligible, will simply deter millions of disadvantaged citizens from exercising their democratic right: people who don’t drive or travel abroad. Practical experience borne out of years of electoral behaviour shows this to be a sledgehammer to crack a nut and counterproductive to ‘democratic participation’ – the very cause it seeks to achieve!
Our Government is paying lip-service to civic participation. The priority must be to reach out to the ‘missing millions’ who don’t appear on the official register. And that third of the population who don’t vote. Over 8 m are at further risk of being ‘disenfranchised’.
800,000 have dropped off the electoral register since the Government brought in its contentious Individual Registration Scheme (IRS). The voter ID scheme will compound this. Only 36% of under-25s voted in the EU referendum. Turn-out in general elections has slumped since the fifties. In the 1951 general election 89% voted. By 2016 this had fallen to 65% even with widespread postal voting making the whole process easier. Moreover the practice of ‘active citizenship’ remains the preserve of the well to do. In some of our fractured, atomised communities adults are more likely to watch ‘Neighbours’ than know them.
The reasons for this are complex and multi-faceted. Mistrust of ‘career politicians’, lack of choice, corruption, little faith in political institutions like Parliament, convergence amongst the big parties, elections dominated by big money, spin and social media spawning ‘fake news’ have been listed as factors for this disconnect. The outcome has been political apathy, alienation and the sharp rise in far-right and far-left populist demagogues both in the UK and abroad. Our democratic system based on consent and informed choice has been eroded.
Can anything be done to address this trend. The key to this is to help citizens make educated choices in elections. Germany, having experienced the tyranny of Fascism and Communism in its history, set up a Civic Education Federal agency to promote the ideals of liberal democracy. User-friendly guides to the system are regularly produced with study tours, theatre and film as a way of engaging with its citizens. A future Labour Government needs to be bold and radical by setting up a Department of Citizenship and Civic Engagement headed up by a capable Secretary of State..
Across the UK voluntary groups like Democracy Matters and the Citizenship Foundation publish on-line learning materials and deliver interactive educational workshops to schools and colleges. But without state funding these organisations struggle to reach out to those who are disengaged.
Although the region’s town halls are doing their best to get eligible adults to register – Newcastle Council has managed to get more than 10,000 more onto the register in the last year – more could be done to preserve our democratic way of life.
Sheffield University has been successful by integrating voter registration into the enrolment process. Further education colleges, which teach the majority of youngsters aged 16 to 19, should adopt this model in their one week induction courses.
Other measures the Government could adopt to boost voter registration and turn-out includes placing a statutory duty on schools to give details of young people approaching 17 to council registration officials. Politicians from all the major parties should be encouraged to address groups of post-16 learners about the history, nature and value of voting. Universities could be encouraged to register blocks of students living in halls. Pilot election-day registrations should form part of pastoral classes.
Citizenship classes, a Labour initiative spearheaded by David Blunkett, need to be restored to the national curriculum. Despite being a legal requirement from 2002 with a recommendation of one and half hours of lessons per week, the reality is that the subject has been side-lined in a congested school curriculum. According to the Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT) there were 100,000 GCSE exam entries in 2009. Last year this was down to 18,000! Little wonder that hundreds of thousands of students feel they lack the knowledge, skills power from the age of 18 to make an informed choice.
Finally, let’s broaden the franchise so that 16 and 17-year olds in England and Wales can vote like their counterparts in Scotland. Findings from a recent report reveals that thousands of young Scots north of the border weren’t only registered to vote, but did so in significant numbers to determine Scotland’s future both in the UK and Europe.
Young people, and other marginalised groups such as those with learning difficulties, the economically excluded, lone parents and migrants shouldn’t be denied a say in all elections and referendums which will shape their futures and well-being. That’s why government agencies like the National Citizenship Service, schools, colleges, churches, youth movements like the guides and scouts and campaign groups need to work in partnership to reach out to the ‘missing millions’.
Rather than tinkering with a broken system through ID checks, we have a moral obligation to address the ‘participation crisis’ and ‘democratic deficit’. Failure to address this issue will only increase the underlying malaise of discontent with politics and our liberal-democracy.