Gosport Voter ID: ‘A Solution in Search of a Problem’?

Rosy Bremer – part of our #ReclaimTheNews local journalism training team – takes a satirical look at the piloting of voter ID in Gosport last week, one of only five places in the country to trial a scheme that appears to be completely unnecessary.

On Thursday May 3rd, people in Gosport were given the opportunity to pilot a new relationship between the individual and the State.  For centuries an individual has not had to prove her identity to either go about her daily business or to exercise her democratic right to choose a representative.

But on May 4th that all changed. At least, it did if you got on a green and white ferry from the Hard, or took the wrong turning off the A27.

Last week, unlike their Portsmouth counterparts, Gosport voters were required to take identity papers (one with a photo, or two showing your address) before they were allowed to vote in the local elections. No one is entirely sure why. There seems little evidence of an increase in voter fraud to warrant even piloting the move, which the Electoral Reform Society have described as a ‘calculated effort by the government to make voting harder for some citizens’.

Stuart Wilks-Heeg, an expert on electoral integrity at the University of Manchester went even further, telling the Guardian that the voter ID trial seemed to be “a solution in search of a problem”.

To be honest, even if there had been an alarming increase in the incidence of voter fraud, it certainly hasn’t happened in Gosport.  Nor in Bromley, Woking, Swindon or Watford, the other trial locations. Four of these areas told the Guardian they had no record of any voter fraud offences, while Woking had a single allegation in 2006.

In a time – and place – where it’s hard enough to get people to turn out to vote at all, the idea of huge crowds trying to impersonate anyone for the purpose of getting another crack at the voting lark seems a little far-fetched.  I think I’m correct in saying that swindling people out of cash remains the most popular reason for pretending to be someone you’re not; well, unless you’re Theresa May, in which case you’re too busy pretending to understand the concept of human empathy.

Cllr Mark Hook of Gosport Borough Council helpfully explained that being required to show ID is commonplace for a variety of different things, like going to nightclubs and doctors appointments, so why not to vote? This sort of logic leads me to think Cllr Hook was the sort of school boy who exclaimed, ‘Really?’ when told the word gullible had been removed from the dictionary. Next time I see Cllr Hook, I’m going to remind him that swimming pools require people to wear swimming costumes to swim, so he is now required to wear a swimming costume to vote. I imagine he’ll go shuffling off to find his Speedos.

On the radio I heard someone else pontificating, ‘Well, you need ID to buy a car. So why should you be able to vote without showing ID if that will prevent voter fraud?’

Surely just listing things that you need ID for and then triumphantly tacking ‘So why not to vote as well?’ onto the end has got to be the worst way of arguing for this issue. It makes me feel like reading out a recipe for Haggis to random passers by, concluding ‘So that’s why you need oatmeal, diced sheep’s liver, onions, suet and all the rest of it inside a sheep’s stomach to vote’.

With rhetoric like this flying through the air looking for a fan to hit, it almost makes you think there isn’t an evidence base for the benefit of introducing voter ID, leaving proponents to resort to snorting lists of other ID-required activity at anyone who asks them a question about it.

So is the practice of arguing really badly for voter ID a deliberate tactic to throw us off the scent that voter fraud isn’t really a problem?

Let’s run through the statistics, according to the UK Statistics Authority.  In 2014 there were 21 cases of voter fraud and in 2016 there were 44; in 2017 the number of cases dropped again to 28.

The Electorial Commission goes even further in demonstrating the (absence of) ‘need’ for voter id.

Analysis by the Electoral Commission of votes conducted in 2017 revealed there were just 28 allegations of ‘personation’ in polling stations – the type of fraud voter ID seeks to address. Just one of these allegations resulted in a prosecution – out of nearly 45 million votes cast in total throughout 2017 (i.e. 0.000063%).
There have been just four significant cases of electoral fraud since 2004. Only one of these involved personation (as well as other types of fraud) – the Mayoral election in Tower Hamlets, 2014. The other three were cases of postal vote fraud and campaign fraud. These were resolved through a judicial process – an example of our renowned legal system and election laws in practice.

When the Government isn’t doing anything about our crumbling national infrastructure, the lack of affordable accommodation for its citizens and the crisis in public services, what on earth is it doing worrying its pretty little cerberus heads about voter fraud? Especially when the ‘spike’ of incidents fell off after the EU referendum, when people stopped wanting to be all anti-establishment for the day?

For the answer to this question we need look no further than the General Election of last year, when the Tories came up with a manifesto and a set of policies so depressing that even the most committed in the Party must’ve felt a little dispirited.  The policies weren’t good for the old, they weren’t good for the young and they weren’t good for the black and global majority.  Several heads must have subsequently got together to work out what to do to improve their dismal electoral performance.  I imagine these same heads must have unanimously agreed that rather than coming up with some less lethal policies, cutting the number of people able and willing to vote would be a cunning way of clinging onto power.

So how did the pilot go?

Across the 5 pilot areas, electoral observers reported 3,981 people were denied a ballot paper in the local elections due to not being able to provide ID.

Gosport Borough Council told the BBC that 44 people were unable to vote because they did not bring the necessary ID. 72 people returned with ID after initially being turned away at polling stations. On 3rd May, a total of 20,612 people voted in Gosport.

Returning Officer, Portsmouth City Council’s Michael Lawther (remember him, the man of many hats?) told the BBC, ‘We ran a very extensive publicity campaign to tell people they needed to bring ID, and what types of ID were acceptable.’

Voter ID may have been forced upon us, but I believe that we as Gosport citizens delivered a Job-like message to the government. The voter ID scheme can come thus far but here will its bad waves stop, lapping powerlessly at the stern of the Harbour Spirit. At least until the Tories bring a new sledgehammer to our shores to crack an imaginary nut.

This story is part of our ongoing series from our #ReclaimTheNews team, a group of local residents trained in investigative journalism in partnership with The Centre for Investigative Journalism. The group now forms S&C’s Community Reporting team. Expect more stories from them in the coming weeks and help spread the word by sharing their articles with your friends and networks – just click on the social media buttons below.