diamond geezer

 Sunday, May 08, 2022

On Thursday I walked into my local polling station, gave them my name and address and was handed my ballot papers. I won't be doing that again.

To be more precise I dashed home from Corby, considered getting my polling card out of my rucksack but didn't, told them my address, watched while they found my address on a sheet of paper, noted how few of my neighbours had voted yet, read my name upsidedown on the sheet of paper, told them my name, watched while they ruled a line alongside my name and was handed two ballot papers. Next time they won't believe me.

It's all because the government passed the Elections Bill into law on 28th April which, amongst other things, will require voter ID in all future elections.

• Parliamentary elections
• council elections
• mayoral elections
• local referendums
• Police and Crime Commissioner elections
...which is pretty much all elections in England other than parish council elections, where the risk of electoral fraud is presumably deemed acceptable.

And that's photographic voter ID, because the government could have chosen to go with a softer option like turning up with a polling card or waving a utility bill but chose not to. A last minute Lords' amendment to add bank statements, cheque books, birth certificates, library cards, National Insurance cards and railcards was refused by the government on the basis that only photo ID is suitably effective.

Acceptable photo ID includes...
• a passport
• a driving licence
• a concessionary photo travel pass
• a Blue Badge scheme card
• a national identity card issued by an EEA state
The government did some research and estimated that 92% of the electorate have at least one of the above. People who don't drive, don't go abroad and aren't old enough to have a bus pass are plainly at a disadvantage. For example latest figures show three-quarters of white people have a full driving licence but only 60% of Asian and mixed-race people and 50% of black people.

Because of this there'll be one additional form of acceptable ID...
• A free voter card issued by a local electoral registration officer
It's not yet been determined how these cards will be issued, that's down to secondary legislation, but the intention is that local authorities should provide them up to and including the day before an election.

Which sounds great - everyone who wants to vote can do so - except this'll add an extra layer of friction in advance of voting. It's hard enough persuading many people to sign up on the electoral roll in the first place, let alone additionally remembering to send a photo to the council in advance.

One outcome should be that people feel more confident about the outcomes of an election, but it'll also undoubtedly lead to fewer people voting... and disadvantage parties with less-engaged, less well-off supporters to boot.

The change has been a long time coming, kickstarted by the Electoral Commission in 2014 and grasped with both hands by Eric Pickles when he was asked to undertake a review in 2016. Since then there have been two separate pilots in a dozen local authorities, both deemed successful even though a small number of genuine voters were turned away. The government's intention to introduce voter ID was also clearly flagged in the 2019 Conservative manifesto so you can't say you weren't warned. 2023's elections will be the first where the new rules apply.

Not that we have a big problem with electoral fraud in this country.

That's 119 allegations of personation in elections over a seven year period, of which nine led to a caution and three to a conviction. You are more likely to be struck by lightning than convicted of electoral fraud.

However a lot of people think significant electoral fraud exists, and elections rely on trust, so the government's been able to argue that voter ID is a necessary boon.

The second thing the Elections Bill does is change the voting system for mayoral and PCC elections to First Past the Post.

When I voted for Tower Hamlets mayor last week I was able to select a first choice and a second choice candidate. I nearly didn't put a tick in the second column because I knew my first choice would be one of the two most popular candidates. But then I remembered that the government was just about to take that second choice away so I ticked it anyway, almost for nostalgia's sake.

Let's see how second votes played out in selecting the Tower Hamlets mayor.

2nd choice
Lutfur Rahman (Aspire)     39533127140804
John Biggs (Labour)27894559333487
all other candidates16698--

Lutfur nearly won the Mayoralty in the first round with 47% of the votes. At this stage John Biggs was still 11639 votes behind, but with 16698 potential 2nd choices to be had he could have won. But even though John won 80% of these eligible extras, the majority of people who'd voted for other candidates either didn't offer a second choice or 'wasted' it on an also-ran.

In Tower Hamlets the second choice never came close to making a difference. But in Croydon...

CROYDON1st choice
2nd choice
Jason Perry (Conservative)33413519938612
Val Shawcross (Labour)31352667138023
all other candidates31083--

In the first round Jason and Val were over 2000 votes apart. But introducing second choices managed to narrow the gap to just 600 as Val very nearly caught up. What's striking here is that over 30000 second choices were potentially available but less than half that number were finally counted. Thousands of Croydon residents could have influenced the final decision but didn't, perhaps because they didn't understand the underlying strategy or perhaps because they weren't interested.

Bottom line, Croydon's Conservative mayor had a narrow squeak but slipped safely through. Had the Elections Bill come into effect a year earlier it would have been a much clearer victory.

Counting second choices isn't proper proportional representation but it is an attempt to broaden the mandate of the successful candidate. Electing the Mayor the fewest number of voters despise is an honourable intention, but that experiment ends now, indeed the Elections Bill has just killed it off.

Instead we're back to the candidate who wins the most votes being elected, a simpler concept but also one that favours parties with a split opposition. Back in UKIP days the Conservatives might have been disadvantaged, but these days it's the Labour/Lib Dem/Green opposition that loses out.

The overall effect of the Elections Bill - deterring voting through compulsory ID and withdrawing supplementary votes - may only make a few percentage points of difference to future contests. But a few percentage points is all it takes change an outcome, particularly in marginal wards and constituencies where elections are ultimately decided. The 2015 General Election, you may remember, was technically swung by 900 voters in seven constituencies, and if you can persuade these key voters not to turn up you can potentially change the future.

However it's dressed up, the Elections Bill is a sledgehammer to crack a nut introduced with the key intention of improving Conservative chances in future contests. If the next general election's on a knife edge and somehow still swings in favour of the current government, their shameless legislative manipulation will have served its purpose.

(if you have a question about the Elections Bill, it's probably answered by the Electoral Commission here or in this comprehensive 87 page briefing from the House of Commons Library)

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