The Government has been forced to defend its plans to require voters to produce ID at the polling booth after an equality watchdog warned it may discriminate against ethnic minority communities.
Whitehall is currently piloting a scheme in five local authority areas that will require voters to produce identification before receiving a ballot paper during next May’s local elections.
However, a leaked letter from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to Cabinet Office minister David Lidington warned at the weekend the requirement could prevent groups with ‘protected characteristics’, such as the elderly, transgender people, and ethnic minority communities, from voting.
The letter says these groups are less likely to have the necessary documentation and so will face the risk of disenfranchisement.
A spokesperson from the commission said: ‘It is essential to a healthy democracy that everyone has the right to participate fully in all aspects of political and civic life, and the freedom to express their opinions.
‘We should be encouraging people of all backgrounds to vote.’
A Cabinet Office spokesperson defended the policy arguing it is important for ‘protecting voting rights.’
‘We already ask that people prove who they are in order to collect a parcel from the post office, rent a car, or travel abroad.
‘We believe it is right to take the same approach to protect voting rights.’
The spokesperson added: ‘Local authorities are implementing Equality Impact Assessments and are working with partners to ensure that voter ID does not risk preventing any eligible voter from voting.
‘It is in nobody's interest that any elector is disenfranchised.’
The Electoral Reform Society has pointed out that electoral fraud is ‘extremely rare.’
In the 2016 elections, there were just 26 allegations of impersonation — the type of fraud voter ID is designed to tackle — resulting in two convictions.
The campaign group also said evidence from around the world showed that forcing voters to bring photographic ID to the polling station makes it harder for people to vote while doing little to stop fraudsters.
The equality commission has issued its warning about the potentially discriminatory voting reform after a week of stories detailing how members of the Windrush generation have struggled to access state services.
Many British citizens who arrived from the Caribbean between the late 1940s and 1970s have no record of their legal status.
Responding to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s letter, Cat Smith MP, Labour’s shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs, said this letter was proof the Government was trying to ‘undermine our democracy.’
‘The introduction of voter ID in polling stations is one of the most dramatic changes to our voting system ever,’ she said.
‘It is deeply concerning that the Government has ignored multiple warnings that these pilots will have a disproportionate impact on various groups, such as ethnic minority communities, older people, transgender people, people with disabilities.
‘Labour wants everyone’s voice to be heard at the local elections, no matter someone’s background, which is why we are calling on the government to abandon these damaging pilots.’
For more on this story read our feature, 'Voter ID: cure for fraud or unreliable encumbrance?'