05:57, February 13 159 0 theguardian.com

2019-02-13 05:57:07
Voter ID trials are dangerous. That’s why I’m taking the government to court

On Wednesday, I received a date to attend the high court to fight against the government’s dangerous voter ID plans.

This case is particularly significant for everyone who lives in my community because next May, for the first time ever, we will be asked to show identification in order to cast our vote at the local government election. Braintree district council, my local authority in Essex, is one of 10 boroughs across England taking part in the government’s pilot scheme, before it plans to roll out voter ID at the next general election.

At first glance, these measures could appear reasonable, fair and innocuous. But on closer inspection, voter ID discriminates against people who are unable to provide identification with the ease that ministers, civil servants and most people take for granted – and naively think we all possess.

As the Windrush scandal clearly demonstrated, many British citizens do not have official documentation, in fact, 3.5 million electors (7.5% of the electorate) do not have any photo ID.

It was therefore hardly surprising that hundreds of voters across five pilot areas were denied their right to vote in last year’s local elections. Their crime? Not possessing the right ID. We must also consider that voter impersonation is an incredibly rare event. In 2017, 28 allegations of voter impersonation were made, for which one person was convicted, out of more than 44 million votes cast.

Universal suffrage (the right to vote for all adult citizens, regardless of property ownership, income, race or ethnicity) is a concept that lies at the very heart of our democracy.

These voting rights were not freely given: indeed, they were hard fought for over hundreds of years by brave, courageous people, who were subject to intimidation, imprisonment and brutal abuse, many of whom died for the democracy that we take for granted today.

Therefore, as citizens, we are duty bound to question the motives of a government that would prescribe a solution that would erode fundamental rights that lie at the heart of our democracy, to combat a problem that barely exists.

The government often refers to Northern Ireland as an example to defend the rollout of voter ID in the rest of the United Kingdom – but this example just reinforces the points I have been making.

Northern Ireland has previously experienced high levels of documented impersonation at the polls. For example, in the 1983 general election, almost 1,000 people turned up to vote only to find that someone else had voted in their place. It was therefore a proportionate response to introduce voter ID. They also took all possible steps to mitigate the discriminatory effects, by introducing a free, easy to obtain photo-identity card, something that will not be on offer in England.

In addition, there is the contemptuous way this government is trying to bypass parliamentary scrutiny to introduce voter ID, by using, perhaps unlawfully, the provisions contained within the Representation of the People Act 2000, that were clearly intended to allow the running of pilots to test for ways of increasing voter turnout.

We all want to see secure elections, free from fraud, in our country. Would it not simply be a better, more efficient and a more democratic solution to increase the penalties for the crime of voter “personation”, and publicise them on polling cards and at polling stations?

While the government wastes time trying to introduce voter ID, it is ignoring very real threats to our electoral system, such as foreign influence in elections and unregulated digital advertising on Facebook.

As Darren Hughes observed in an article for the Times: “The reality is that, for anyone set on rigging an election, it is far easier to pump cash into political campaigns and digital adverts than to tour constituencies in an overcoat pretending to be someone else.”

I’m not wealthy, so I’ve launched a campaign with crowdjustice.com to raise the £40,000 in funds needed to cover my legal costs to bring this case. Our hard-won fundamental rights are being unnecessarily denied and I’m proud to defend our democracy.

Neil Coughlan is an Essex resident who is taking the government to the high court over its plans to introduce voter ID

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