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Voting Rules Changes Make it Harder for Disabled People to Vote

From May 2023, everyone voting at a polling station in England will have to show photo ID to vote. This is a change in the law – in the past proof of ID was not needed to vote in elections in England. Photo ID is still not required if you vote by post.

This change to ID rules when people vote in person might make it more difficult for some disabled people, particularly people with learning disabilities and other cognitive impairments. This is because they may be less likely to have standard forms of photo ID. It might also make it more difficult for some older people, and other marginalised groups to vote (especially young people and trans and non-binary people).

Why does this matter?

Before this policy was implemented, the Government funded research to see who might be most impacted by a requirement to provide photo ID to vote. Their own research demonstrated that disabled people thought that having to present photo ID to vote would make it more difficult to vote, and that disabled people are less likely to have the forms of Photo ID required to vote.

Even more worryingly, research undertaken by mencap in 2014 found that 17% of people with learning disabilities surveyed were turned away from polling stations because of their disability. Yet disabled people are often more reliant on public sector service provision than non-disabled people, so making their voices heard through voting is really important.

These changes have been introduced with little time before the first elections they will apply to, and despite concerns raised by the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission, and the Local Government Association about the tight timescales for implementing the reforms. Questions have also been asked about why voter ID is a priority, as there are only very small numbers of prosecutions for voter fraud.

A missed opportunity?

Aside from making sure that those people who might be disenfranchised because of the new system know about the changes, and what they need to do in response to them (see more on that below), it is important to also take a step back and think about the wider impacts of this new ID requirement. When thinking through this new system of voter ID, I can’t help but think that in some respects it represents a missed opportunity to improve access for people who don’t have the more standard forms of Photo ID.

In Session 4 of the CLARiTY Project, we talked about opening bank accounts and accessing everyday banking. We heard from participants that this can be difficult for disabled people if they don’t have the kinds of photographic ID that are usually used to prove identity. The easiest forms of photo ID to use most of the time when you need to prove your identity are passports and driving licenses, as these are secure, official ID documents issued by the Government.

Unfortunately, we heard that many people with learning disabilities, especially those with profound and multiple learning difficulties, may not have either a passport or driving license, because they don’t drive or don’t often travel outside the UK. Both of these forms of ID are also expensive (£34 for a provisional driving license, from £82.50 for a UK passport), and need to be renewed every 10 years. This makes them a luxury that not everyone can afford, especially when in a period of high inflation like the current cost of living crisis.

The banking sector has also been changing significantly in recent years, with much more focus from many financial service providers on online and mobile banking. Many new banks offering the highest interest rates or innovative products are online or app only, and formal types of ID (like driving licenses and passports) are required to open accounts.

There are alternative forms of ID that can be used for banking and other official purposes (like correspondence from HMRC about tax matters, or a benefit entitlement letter), these can only usually be used in person in a branch, or sent by post. Given that nearly 5,500 bank branches have closed in the UK since 2015, this inevitably results in a more limited choice of banking products and providers for people without standard forms of ID, as they are restricted to providers who continue to have physical branches in easy reach.

If the new (free) voting ID had included the kinds of information that are covered by other forms of (paid) government-issued ID (e.g., date of birth, home address), then this could have at least held some potential to increase access in other ways, rather than simply increase barriers to exercising the right to vote.

What should disabled people and supporters do now?

The first thing to do is check that you have one of the accepted forms of Photo ID. The electoral commission have published a list of the different kinds of ID that will be accepted. In addition to driving license or passport, a limited number of other kinds of photo ID issued by the government can be used to prove your identity at a polling station, including:

  • A blue badge used for parking
  • Over 60s or Disabled Person’s Bus pass, where these are funded/issued by the Government (but not other kinds of bus pass)
  • An ID card bearing the PASS logo (like the Citizen Card)
No ID? Apply for free voter ID by 25 April! [image courtesy of the Electoral Commission]
Image from the Electoral Commission

If you don’t have any of these forms of Photo ID, it is now possible to apply for a free photo ID for the specific purpose of voting, called a Voter Authority Certificate. This can be applied for online through the website or through your local council. You will need to be registered to vote before you can apply. Mencap have made an easyread guide to registering to vote.

The Electoral Commission have published some Easy Read information about Voter ID which can be downloaded from their website.

The deadline for applying online for a Voter Authority Certificate in time to vote in the 4 May Local Authority elections is 25 April 2023, but everyone is advised to action this sooner rather than later if possible in case there are delays closer to the time.

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