Picture of ballot box with a ballot paper about to be dropped in the slot

Voter identification (ID) requirements have long been a contentious issue in electoral systems around the world. The recent English local elections of 2023 shed light on the damaging effects of voter ID policies as, for the first time, voters in England were required to show photo ID in order to cast their vote. Accepted forms of ID included passports, driving licences, 60+ oyster cards (but not the 18+ student ones) and some bus passes. 

 

The requirement will also apply to some, but not all elections in Scotland – any elections to Westminster will now require photo ID, but not those for Scottish local authorities or indeed Holyrood. A distinction that could lead to the potentially confusing situation of Scots being able to vote for some, but not all, of their elected representatives if they don’t have the required ID. 

 

Enacted to provide additional security and prevent personation – the offence of impersonating another voter at the polling station – voter ID has always been a solution in search of a problem. In 2019, the last year of national elections in the UK there were 58 million votes cast between general, local and European elections across the UK and just one conviction of this electoral offence. 

 

Voter ID is, and was always going to be, a huge barrier between voters and the ballot box implemented to address an issue which doesn’t exist on a widespread scale. 

 

The government’s own research suggests that around 2 million people lack the kind of photographic ID needed to cast a vote under these rules – almost 180,000 of whom live in Scotland – many of whom are already among society’s most marginalised. 

 

Ahead of the elections applications for the government’s free Voter Authority Certificate – the scheme designed to ensure those without ID could still vote – numbered just 85,000 barely scratching the surface on the number of those who could be turned away. 

 

It’s too early to know the full extent of the impact of these new rules on the English local elections – but evidence revealed this month by the BBC shows that across 160 of the 230 councils that had elections, over 9000 people were turned away. 

 

The implementation of voter ID policies in England raises concerns about its potential impact on democracy here in Scotland. Scotland has traditionally taken a different approach when it comes to democracy, prioritizing accessibility and inclusion in its electoral system from the use of proportional representation to votes at 16. Voter ID would represent a significant shift from this approach – the imposition of a more Westminster-style approach to elections. 

 

But it’s not too late for the government to change course. This policy could and should be repealed before the next General Election to ensure that the same scenes we saw in England, of voters being turned away from polling stations, aren’t repeated. 

 

Other changes too could lessen the negative impacts of the policy on democratic access – expanding the list of acceptable IDs, including non-photographic ID and even poll cards, as we and many others have called for, could prevent many voters from being turned away. So too could a vouching system like seen in Canada, where a voter with ID could vouch for the identity of a voter without. Both small changes could have a big impact on election day. 

 

Ministers rejected both these ideas when the policy was debated in parliament. As a result, we now have one of the most restrictive voter ID regimes – far more restrictive than many US states where there are accusations that election rules are used to suppress voter turnout for political gain. 

 

These lessons learned should serve as a warning to the potential threat such policies pose to the democratic process in future Scottish elections. It is crucial to prioritize fair and accessible electoral processes that uphold the principles of democracy and ensure equal participation for all citizens. 

The Impact of Gendered Policies on Women’s Voting Behaviour 

Parties often seek to appeal to women voters through policy pledges. However, we know little about how these policies influence women’s voting behaviour. My research explored this in the context of the 2015 general election. I held focus groups in two constituencies (Manchester Central and Altrincham and Sale West) up to 18 months after the 2015 election, with 61 participants overall. I split focus groups according to age category (under 35s, 35-64, and 65+). Here, I focus on two policy agendas that were prominent within the focus group discussions: childcare and austerity. For both policy agendas, I found that trust in parties was lacking. 

Childcare 

As it stands, the UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. The issue of childcare was a “battleground” at the 2015 election, where Labour’s pledge to raise subsidised childcare to 25 hours per week for working parents was trumped by a last-minute pledge of 30 hours from the Conservative Party. Within the focus groups, the Conservatives’ 30-hour pledge was met with scepticism from some women, due to confined eligibility to parents working at least 16 hours per week on National Minimum Wage. Some also raised concerns that the policy was not properly costed: 

“I always take everything that the Conservatives say with a pinch of salt. So, the 30 free [childcare] hours, I think, well, how? Like no, it’s not as simple as that.” 

“The 30 free hours seems like a good idea but even then I think they’ve still put things in place where there are still loopholes…you still have to be earning over a certain amount in order for it to benefit you in any way.” 

“under the 30 free hours [the nurseries] only get a very small amount don’t they and obviously they’ve got to make a profit and that’s why they start charging for meals and all the other things…so it’s not really free hours, is it? Because you’ve always got the extras.” 

Austerity and living costs 

The 2015 Election was held against a backdrop of five years of austerity measures. These measures hit women financially twice as hard as men, due in part to women’s greater reliance on the state for income, services, and employment. Younger women were particularly averse to spending cuts, and two women commented on the challenges of rising living costs:  

“Even now, food in supermarkets has got too dear, like meat and fish and things. I’ve become more aware of it. I used to do my weekly shop in Tesco but I changed to Aldi … I can’t afford a big weekly shop [in Tesco] anymore, not for the four of us.” 

“For me, it’s how to cope with the cost of bills when they keep going up, especially electricity I’ve noticed… Normally I can budget carefully on top of food and rent each month, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy… all it takes is one utility bill that’s much higher than usual and you feel it financially, sometimes for a while after, actually.” 

Research has shown that at the 2015 and 2017 elections, younger women’s financial pessimism and concerns over service provision were associated with their higher relative Labour support and reduced Conservative support. The focus group discussions illustrated that, comparatively, Labour’s economic policies on greater social spending were met with scepticism among older women: 

“You’ve got to think ‘it all sounds wonderful’ and then analyse it down…you can’t pay for it.” 

“Well [The Labour Party] cleaned the coppers out last time, didn’t they?” 

Conclusions 

So, what can parties learn from this? Firstly, taking the example of subsidised childcare hours, parties should ensure that there is transparency regarding the costs and eligibility of their policy proposals. Secondly, parties should be fully cognisant that women are not a monolithic block. We often hear about ‘the women’s vote’ but, as Rosie Campbell highlights, it is more accurate to talk about ‘women voters’ given the average voter is a woman. Women’s trust in parties’ pledges manifested differently across life-stage, but we might also expect this to vary by other factors, such as ethnicity or class. Policy proposals should therefore speak to women voters in all their diversity. For Labour, clear challenges lie ahead in winning the votes of older women without alienating younger women, particularly along economic lines. For the Conservatives, the reverse applies. 

Gaining the trust of women voters is important. And there are, after all, real electoral incentives. Women comprise 54% of the British electorate due in part to demographic differences. On average, women tend to live longer than men: among those aged 85 and over, 65% are women. Men also comprise 95% of the prison population, meaning that many of them are ineligible to vote. In short, parties cannot afford to ignore women’s votes. 

Dr Anna Sanders is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of York. Her research focuses on gender, elections and public policy.