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Photo ID demand will disenfranchise voters, Bishop of St Albans warns

24 March 2023


THE Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, is encouraging churches to advertise the new requirement that voters show photo ID, out of concern that the new law will leave many disenfranchised.

In the local elections this May, voters will be asked to show an approved form of photo identification, and the same requirement will be in place for General Elections from this summer.

“All the evidence suggests that this is likely to adversely affect the poorest and the most marginalised,” Dr Smith said on Wednesday.

“If you’re struggling to make ends meet, and you’re working long hours, to have to go and get another form of identity if you haven’t got one readily at hand . . . it’s much more likely to mean that people may say: ‘It’s just too difficult.’ We already have a problem getting people out to the ballot boxes, so why make it more difficult?”

Dr Smith also questioned the proportionality of the requirement. “We’re asking 47 million people to have to go through extra hoops for what is a pretty minor problem,” he said.

Data released by the Electoral Commission show that, after the last General Election, 164 allegations of election fraud were investigated by the police, but none led to a conviction.

The law was changed last year by the Elections Act. Several bishops raised concerns about the Bill as it passed through the House of Lords. In March last year, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said in a House of Lords committee debate that the risk of those on low incomes being disenfranchised was his “particular concern”.

He described the prospect that some people would not be able to vote because they did not have ID as “a form of non-recognition, which would be a moral injury to them and an injustice that would damage the UK’s traditions of democratic participation”.

Dr Cocksworth argued in favour of an amendment that would have significantly expanded the list of allowable identification documents, to include bank statements, council-tax bills, National Insurance cards, and a number of other forms of ID. The amendment was unsuccessful.

There is a list of the accepted forms of ID on the Electoral Commission’s website. It includes various travel passes available to the over-60s, but not those for students or children — a discrepancy highlighted by Dr Smith on Wednesday.

People without an accepted form of ID can apply for a free “Voter Authority Certificate”.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, also spoke in the House of Lords debate on the Elections Bill. “There are two issues: the principle of voter ID, and the effects in practice,” he said on Tuesday.

“The latter impacts the former. There is mounting evidence that many people will be disenfranchised — numbers of voters requesting help are very low. This risks damaging our democracy, and is a matter of serious concern.”

Dr Smith expressed worries that people were not aware of the new requirements, and would be caught out when they tried to vote in the local elections in May. During the passage of the Elections Bill, he criticised how quickly the new rules were being brought in.

On Wednesday, he called for churches to do what they could to get word out about the requirements: “Many of our churches and cathedrals will be hosting hustings, and I would hope that those running them will make a point of reminding people of the vital importance of having photo ID. . . But the problem is that I suspect the people turning up at hustings are exactly the sort of people who have voter ID.

“I suspect it’s hard, pressurised people with a young family and demanding jobs, and working antisocial hours, who are going to be the ones who will be caught out by it, who will turn up to vote and then discover they can’t.”

The sites and situations in which the Church does community outreach could be an opportunity to reach such people, Dr Smith suggested.

“I would encourage people, if it’s possible, to put up a poster, raise it with people — we want to to encourage people to engage in the democratic process. That’s what healthy democracies do — we want to actively try and get as many citizens thinking about how society can best serve and care for people, but particularly look out for the people who are struggling for various reasons.”

Dr Smith, who is the convenor of the bishops in the House of Lords, also reflected more broadly on the part that Christians can play in the public sphere: “We have huge opportunities here; we need to value them and use them. And so I’ve always been very keen to encourage churches to talk to their MPs when there’s an election campaign going on; to host hustings — and, indeed, perhaps even to chair them; and to encourage public debate [about] what sort of society we want, because, if we don’t join in with that debate, others will decide it.

“At the moment, many aspects of our common life are being determined by powerful corporations who are monetising our data, and are trying to use what they have on us, and we need to do something rather different, which is to help people imagine the sort of society that we want to build, and that’s where Christians can have a huge role, if we get involved in politics, both local, national, and, indeed, international.”

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