Papers please

I knew the question was coming because reminders were everywhere at the polling station. Still, it felt a bit awkward. “Can I see your photo ID?”;

I tried to get my driver’s license out of my wallet, but it was stuck in it. It was surprisingly reassuring. We’ve never been a “show me your papers”-type society. Politicians from Tony Blair to William Hague have proposed ID cards of some sort. But no – not for us, thanks. With never needing to show my driver’s license, it feels like it’s included in my wallet.

“Have you had to turn anyone away yet?” I asked fumbling. My question caught the ear of a passing voter, who stopped to listen.

Election officials – there were three of them – looked at each other. And after reaching some kind of tacit agreement, one of them told me that yes, they had turned some people away.

“One of them was very angry,” said the election official.

“But then he went home and came back after a while with the correct ID, so it was fine,” said another. “And we can tell you that. We’re not telling you any names, so it’s okay, right?”

This happened several times, he explained, meaning that no one was actually prevented from voting. The result was simply inconvenience. In other words, the new voter ID rules had failed to catch anyone trying to vote illegally.

Finally I managed to get the license out of my wallet. The officer took it, studied it, looked at me, looked at the photo, then at me again, and handed it back.

“Will you let someone go?” I asked “If they don’t have the right ID?”

“No,” they chorused.

One of them said, “Even if he is my next door neighbor whom I have known for 20 years.” “Yet, if they don’t have an ID on the list, they can’t vote.”

“So what did Jacob Rees-Mogg say about it?” asked another voter who stayed to listen to our conversation. Rees-Mogg is the MP for the constituency next door, which means he is a bit of a regional embarrassment. Earlier that day, he advised election workers to be “flexible” when it came to the ID question.

People present at the polling booth said that flexibility is not possible and the rules are clear.

“So he was lying again, wasn’t he?” the passing voter asked. Being good citizens, the polling personnel did not respond.

In 2017 a British man was convicted of the offense of “impersonation”, ie pretending to be someone else in order to vote. Then in 2021, Kent Police identified a woman who used her mother’s polling card to vote after her father told her to do so. He received a police warning.

This seems to be the extent of Britain’s voter fraud problem. So why has the government introduced voter ID rules to deal with a problem that doesn’t exist?

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris was sent out by the government to explain its massive loss of council seats. When asked about the ID plan he called it “a perfectly good thing”, which is a bit odd – weren’t conservatives against bureaucracy, red tape and limits on people’s personal freedoms?

But then the voter ID question isn’t really a conservative issue—it’s a culture war issue, and one that has been imported from the United States. There, Republican officials have begun enforcing strict Election Day rules in Democrat-voting districts, leading to massive lines at polling stations. This is also known as “voter suppression”.

Fortunately, Britain is far from that, and turnout was so low that it seems the British electorate is quite capable of suppressing itself. When I went to vote, there was no queue.

But being asked to show your papers at the polling booth is the first intrusion of the culture war into the electoral system. Whatever the ministers of the government may say, it is not a good thing.