Who are the voters under threat from the Elections Bill?

Who are the voters under threat from the Elections Bill?
Lost voices — The government’s proposed changes to the UK’s election laws have been described as an ‘attack on democracy’. Those set to be impacted explain why the bill risks silencing them.

UK elections are in desperate need of reform. There is low turnout and registration among the most marginalised, and then even for those who do vote, First Past the Post often means that vote is wasted.

But instead of trying to address these urgent issues, the government is instead attempting to change the UK’s election laws with its Elections Bill, which campaigners say would deny millions of people the vote, as well as hampering the ability of trades unions to campaign. Earlier this week, the bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons, bringing the UK one step closer to introducing compulsory photo ID checks for voters.

There are more than 3.5 million people currently without any form of ID potentially locked out, and that’s not accounting for the people who simply forget or lose their ID shortly before an election. These measures will affect younger people, people of colour and those on low incomes most. In effect, those who are most marginalised will be prevented from making their voices heard, entrenching already rampant inequality. While the government claims the new rules would help eliminate voter fraud, statistics show that there are very few instances of this taking place with only two convictions since 2017.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, also included within the bill are the proposed changes to EU citizens’ voting rights that means EU citizens who enter the UK after 2021 will not be able to vote or stand in local elections in England and Northern Ireland, unless the EU country they are a citizen of has already agreed to a post-Brexit deal allowing them a vote. There’s also the planned extension of First Past the Post to Mayoral and PCC elections, which would likely see significant positions handed to people without the support of a majority of the voters and the suppression of political diversity.

The bill will make voting harder and less accessible, and increase wasted and tactical votes. And that’s if you can even vote at all, as this bill does nothing to solve the complicated voting rights of non-citizens in the UK (before the Elections Bill you can only vote in General elections if you are a British, Irish, or Commonwealth citizen, with local elections extending the right to EU citizens).

With amendments from opposition parties proposing reforms of votes at 16, automatic voter registration, residency based voting rights, and a Citizen’s Assembly on proportional representation, the government has had a lot of opportunities to help make voting accessible for as many people as possible. But so far the Elections Bill remains not just a wasted opportunity, but a dangerous move to replicate voter suppression tactics right out of America’s playbook, as campaigners have warned.

We speak to some of the countless people who will face the impact of the Elections Bill about why their rights are under threat.

Kat, 32, Cambridgeshire

“My own disabilities mean that every few years, I need to have my fitness to drive reassessed. This means my license expires while I wait for the DVLA to complete their investigations and this time, because of the pandemic causing staffing problems, I’ve been without valid ID for 13 months and counting while I wait to be assessed and my renewed license to be sent to me. There is no way to speed up the process and I’m at the mercy of the DVLA as to when and how often this happens. I don’t have a passport because it expired a few years ago and I won’t be travelling abroad for the foreseeable future. 

“I’ve voted in elections, both national and local, since I was legally old enough to. Democracy is hugely important to me as are issues around the NHS, workers rights and disability rights. Paying £75 to purchase a passport just to exercise my democratic rights defeats the point. And that’s what this bill is doing – asking people from the most marginalised groups, often on the lowest incomes, to pay to exercise their rights – or blocking them from accessing it at all.’’

Fabiano, 41, London

‘‘During the 14 years I have lived in the UK since moving from Brazil, I have worked in a variety of jobs: cleaner, waiter, Uber driver, Amazon delivery, Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and Stuart rider. I have always followed politics closely: hours driving gives you plenty of time to pay attention to the news. But though I live and work in the UK and regularly keep up with politics, I do not have the right to vote in elections in my home of London. 

“But it’s not just having a say I miss out on. Not being able to register to vote means I was unable to take out a loan because my credit score was too low as a result of not being on the electoral register. This bill is a chance to give all us UK residents the right to vote – instead we remain without a voice in the UK.’’

Sioned, 20, Pontypridd

‘‘Last May was my first time where I felt like my vote counted. My first and only time voting before this was in the 2019 General Election, where I had to wrestle with whether to vote for who I wanted (Plaid Cymru) or tactically vote for Labour. But in May when I voted in the Senedd and PCC elections, two out of the three votes I cast that day got to count. 

“The extension of First Past the Post in Wales’ PCC elections is absurd, never mind a huge step back when Senedd elections use proportional representation. So many other young people in Wales that I know don’t vote – why should we tell all these apathetic voters their votes matter when we have systems like First Past the Post that devalues and wastes votes?’’

Geoffrey, 30, Norfolk

“I have two pieces of ID: a passport and a driver’s licence. The former is expired and I can’t justify the expense of renewing when I’m poor and unable to secure financial support. My driver’s licence is 18 months from expiration and it’s cheaper to renew, but the photo I have is outdated. 

‘’What I have seen so far about free voter ID cards doesn’t seem like it would be open to me. I’ve already experienced enough issues with the government schemes. My experience of the disability benefits system doesn’t fill me with confidence that this will be an accessible measure for disabled people and if I have to travel anywhere to get it, then I’m going to struggle to do that safely. I have a moral and social responsibility to vote and I dislike the uncertainty around my ability to do that in the future.’’

Andreea, 29, Bristol 

“As a Romanian with Settled Status, for me, the most important election I am eligible to vote in is our local Mayoral election. In Bristol where I live, local people are politically active and engaged; we want positive change and the opportunity to be involved in making a real difference, which we can do at a local level in significant ways. 

“I believe these kind of ideas for change are more likely to come from a smaller party or an independent candidate. And then if they do, I want everyone to truly be able to vote in what they believe in, rather than being coerced into supporting the main political parties by a First Past the Post system.

“The government is putting more and more hurdles in the way of change, at every level. Democracy is one of the core values of British society and the Elections Bill changing Mayoral and PCC elections to First Past the Post is detrimental to the democratic process.’’

Theo, 20, London

“In the weeks before polling day in May 2021, I agonised over who to vote for. I was certain I wanted to give the Lib Dems my first preference as I found their manifesto and candidate the most appealing but I also wanted to keep the Conservatives out of City Hall at all costs. I could stomach Sadiq Khan as Mayor but I did not want to vote for him specifically because of his refusal to scrap the disastrously polluting Silvertown Tunnel project. I voted Green second to protest this. 

“In May I was able to weigh up parties’ issues myself and come to my own conclusions as to where my priorities lie, not be browbeaten into voting for the strongest challenger to prevent a politician I dislike even more from winning or, worse, be demonised as the enabler of that politician because I dared vote for a third candidate more aligned to my beliefs.

“In reintroducing First Past the Post, the Elections Bill makes voting for candidates who do not share my views the only way for me to stop other candidates who share even fewer of my views from gaining power. It is one of the many problems within the bill which makes me feel as if my voice doesn’t count.”

Maddy Dhesi is a campaigner with the3million’s Young Europeans Network and #HandsOffOurVote.

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