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Johnson’s voter ID checks are not about electoral fraud, they’re about power

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

The government’s voter identity scheme should be abandoned. It is unnecessary, inconvenient and a disincentive to vote. More serious, voter cards for those without a current form of photo ID would be another step, however modest, towards the regulation and surveillance of daily life, an obsession of governments worldwide since the digital revolution.

A classic test of state liberalism is how soon after an emergency a regime chooses to dismantle any acquired emergency powers. Boris Johnson has gloried in his daily display of control, this week permitting Britons to hug, but “with caution”. In his post-pandemic Queen’s speech he announced thatproof of ID would now be required by those wishing to exercise the right to vote. This, he says, will prevent election fraud. Voters without driving licences should apply to their local council with a photograph. Their details will presumably be registered. Those who do not register will be denied the vote.

The need for this innovation is trivial. Voting is a bond of public trust, the harmless giving of a validated name and address in exchange for a ballot paper. In Cabinet Office research in 2019, of 266 cases of electoral fraud investigated in 2018, just one in five (57) related to complaints made about the voting process and only eight cases nationwide related to identity impersonation. There have been just three convictions of personation at polling offices in the past seven years.

Related: More than 2m voters may lack photo ID required under new UK bill

In 2014, the Electoral Commission advised that there was no reason why photo ID in some form should not be used at polling stations as 92.5% of people had one. That left 7.5% adrift. Pilot studies in other countries into the introduction of voter ID, the most thorough from Canada, showed that between 5% and 10% of some groups – recent immigrants, ethnic minorities and young people – experienced increased difficulty. In Britain it is thought older people were also deterred.

An London School of Economics review of the assembled data in 2019 found itself baffled. Three and a half million mostly poorer voters have no access to photo ID, and would need to get it from a town hall. Few voters said they were worried about fraud, with far more concerned about low turnout. As for the issue of impersonation, said the LSE, it was so minimal as to render it “hard to justify this level of disenfranchisement”. The whole business is ridiculous.

The reality of identity cards lies elsewhere. In their forms they are beloved of bureaucracies. In Britain they are an occupational disease of ministerial office, reflecting a craving to regulate any human activity under a minister’s control. ID cards were introduced in the first world war, supposedly to trap German spies, and promptly abolished in 1919. They returned in 1939, and Whitehall refused to let them go. They were retained by Clement Attlee’s government after 1945 “because of the cold war”, but were hated by the public who were being asked to show them by police.

Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, campaigned in opposition to “set the people free” of ID cards, and he duly abolished them in 1952 amid bonfires across the land. It then emerged that Whitehall had expanded the cards’ National Information Register from just three categories of personal data to 39. I sense Johnson is eager to go down this path, in spite of his role model.

Since the turn of the present century, an ever-authoritarian Home Office has itched to restore the cards. Under Tony Blair, it claimed they would “combat terrorism”, while the NHS wanted a similar database to combat disease. Both would be secure against hacking, by criminals, blackmailers or insurance companies. Billions of pounds were blown on consultants.

By 2006, the ID lobby had won. The Blair government proposed a new digitised ID card tied to a National Identity Register, this time covering a grotesque 50 categories of personal data on every citizen. It included up to 10 fingerprints, facial and iris scans and lists of all past places of residence. The records would be totally secure, yet somehow shared with other government departments and local authorities. This techno-dazzled home secretaries such as David Blunkett and Charles Clarke. Gordon Brown even wanted retailers to be able to check shoppers against the database.

The 2006 card became so controversial it was eventually made voluntary, destroying its counter-terrorism role. As its launch costs soared to in excess of £12bn, it lost all contact with common sense or value for money. It was pointed out that driving licences and passports were a perfectly adequate proof of identity where one was really needed.

Related: Johnson the civil libertarian wants to have his voter ID card and eat it | Marina Hyde

What had become an obsessional Whitehall data trawl was repealed by David Cameron’s government in 2011. As with Churchill, it was announced that information so far amassed on the data register would be destroyed. But as Edward Snowden later disclosed, such pledges are useless from ministers who feel “national security” licenses mendacity. In 2013, a database belonging to the NHS also collapsed under a blizzard of National Audit Office criticism. Dodgy consultants were ripping off Whitehall left, right and centre. An estimated £10bn was lost by the NHS – as if it had money to burn. Meanwhile, regular leaks of health records show that all digital data is now inherently insecure.

In his futuristic novel The Circle, Dave Eggers envisaged a control-freak society in which everyone is a walking open ID card. A Big Brother national register knows where everyone is, their histories, lives, ailments, friends, misdemeanours, entitlements and disqualifications. The individual is a prisoner of his or her present and past, an existence shared with everyone. To disconnect and retreat into privacy is a crime, and mobs set out to find you. Anyone who thinks this just a fantasy should watch the film The Social Dilemma and former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris’s devastating account of the power of digital algorithms over 3 billion human beings.

Cynics might shrug and tell us to get wise. The internet thrust us all into the electronic universe, as evolution once thrust us into the natural one. We expect the state to protect and sustain us. We can hardly object if the state wishes to know – and tell – all about us.

Yet the very absurdity of voter ID indicates the carelessness of its backers. I always feared individual freedoms would be most at risk from a government of journalists. It is a profession instinctively hostile to the privacy of the individual. That is why voter ID is not about voting. It is about the abuse of power. You may think the 50 shades of you that were listed in the 2011 National Identity Register are a forgotten horror. Think again.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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