The Barbour County Registrars

The last time I voted was in 2019. It was a simple thing. There are polling stations right near my home. You didn’t even need to take the poll card. You can do it around full time work, and the school run. You just walked into the booth and did it. 

If there’s something to be patriotic about in British politics it’s the ease of our voting system. Once we got rid of the property-owning qualifications, and the ban on women’s participation, voting became a simple process that gives (mostly) clear and decisive results. Liberals like me might not always like the outcomes, like the Leave vote in 2016, but at least you know what the results are. Sure, some of us might periodically argue for something like AV or proportional representation, but this never comes to anything and there’s something about the declamatory thump of first-past-the-post. 

Naturally, the government wants to make voting more complicated

Voter ID is a bad idea that never dies. There are many constitutional innovations I would import from the United States. Voter ID isn’t one of them. I remember coverage of Georgians waiting five hours on a dusty road to vote in the 2020 election. Having lost that one, the Republicans have redoubled legislative efforts to make voting more complicated still. Voting rights have a controversial history in that country, as in ours. Robert Caro, in his Master of the Senate, detailed the bureaucratic hurdles that faced Black electors in just one Alabama county of 1957:

The Barbour County registrars used a less sophisticated technique. They asked more reasonable questions – the names of local, state, and national officials – but if an applicant missed even one question, he would not be given the application that had to be filled out before he could receive a certificate, and somehow, even if a black applicant felt sure he had answered every question correctly, often the registrars would say there was one he had missed, although they would refuse to tell him which it was. Margaret Frost had already experienced this technique, for she had tried to register before – in January of 1957 – and forty years later, when she was an elderly woman, she could still remember how, after she had answered several questions, the Board’s chairman, William (Beel) Stokes, had told her she had missed one, adding, ‘You all go home and study a little more,’ and she could still remember how carefully blank the faces of Stokes and his two colleagues had been, the amusement showing only in their eyes.

As staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Caren Short, told the Guardian: ‘The real reason these laws are passed is to suppress the vote, and that is in fact what happens.’

ID is increasingly crucial to citizenship. The Windrush scandal in 2018 saw thousands of people lose their jobs, their bank accounts, even get deported, in essence because they could not provide reams of documentation going back many years.

Of course I am confident this is not the rationale here. When ministers get up to defend the proposal they will not say ‘We do not want certain people to vote.’ They will say it’s no different from showing your driver’s licence to get a mortgage, they will say they want to stop electoral fraud, they will make reasonable arguments (although perhaps with a hint of amusement in their eyes?) 

But we have already tried voter ID in this country, albeit on a local basis. In spring 2019 more than 800 people were turned away from polling stations in a small trial – and, considering the margins of victory for local politicians, that 800 can make quite a difference. Far from protecting the integrity of voting systems, the Tory plans potentially make local government even less accountable and more corrupt than it is at present. In all the bluster about Hartlepool and the Great Realignment of British politics, few pundits noted that the turnout last week was just 42.3%. Why didn’t the other 60-odd% vote? Why does the government want to make it harder for them to do so?

I don’t want to make a political attack here. I can absolutely imagine Labour governments bringing this stupid idea back to life.

But if the Great Realignment means anything, it is that the Conservatives are now the party of clipboard-wielding busybodies. You need two forms of ID to get a job (or keep one), you need two forms of ID to rent or buy somewhere, you will need papers to get into the pub and now you will need photo ID to get into the voting booth. ‘Active state’? You may keep it. 

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