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Pleas to pause voter ID plans amid fears of widespread disenfranchisement

Richard Wheeler and Ben Hatton, PA Political Staff

Calls to pause plans to force voters to show identification at polling stations have been ignored by the Government amid warnings of widespread disenfranchisement.

Local government minister Lee Rowley said around 98% of the electorate already have an accepted form of voter ID, such as a passport, driving licence or blue badge, and confirmed more than 21,000 applications have been made for a free voter ID document.

But opposition MPs voiced concerns over the pace of the rollout of the voter authority certificates given local elections in England on May 4 will require people to show an approved form of photographic identification before collecting their ballot paper.

The requirement is already in place in Northern Ireland and, from October, the condition will be extended to UK general elections as well.

Liberal Democrat MP Helen Morgan (North Shropshire) warned the reforms were similar to using a “sledgehammer to crack a nut” given there is little evidence that personation – voting in an election by pretending to be someone else – is a significant problem in the British electoral system.

She added the policy is a “thinly-veiled attempt to make it far more difficult for people to vote” and criticised the Government for the “botched” rollout of ID.

Ms Morgan said: “Of the estimated two million people who will now need a new form of ID, a voter authority certificate, in order to vote, just 1% have applied.

“And of that tiny number, not even 21,000, a tiny minority are older people or young people – groups who we were warned risk being disenfranchised under these new plans.”

Ms Morgan added: “Will the minister commit to, at the very least, pausing this year's rollout?

“He will be aware that the Electoral Commission's analysis that this rushed rollout means that the May elections can't be run ‘in a fully-secure, accessible and workable manner'.”

Mr Rowley said the Government was making a “basic, fundamental change to ensure that we protect the integrity of the ballot box”, adding: “I need to take on this notion that there are two million people who need a voter ID – that is not correct.”

He added: “Of those two million people, which is an estimate, a large number of those will not have elections in their area this year.

“Secondly, of that group a number will choose not to vote – much as we would like them to do so – will have chosen never to have voted, and we would encourage them to do so, but ultimately that is what the purpose of a democracy is – people have a right to vote and not to vote, and we're seeking to encourage them to do so, we're seeking to guarantee that integrity.”

For Labour, shadow communities minister Alex Norris noted there are 72 days before polling day and added: “We're risking widespread disenfranchisement.

“When is the minister going to wake up and act to prevent these voter ID requirements from locking huge numbers of people out of their democracy at the next election?”

Mr Rowley replied: “(Mr Norris) continues to perpetuate the myth that this is some form of suppression – it's absolutely incorrect.”

SNP spokesperson Chris Stephens said that “it would seem that there is some gerrymandering going on”, raising concerns over the types of ID accepted for young people.

Meanwhile, Labour MP Geraint Davies MP (Swansea West) said the control of some councils can be determined by small numbers of votes, asking: “Does he anticipate that the Government will have to go to court, charged with voter suppression and a corruption of our democracy intentionally because people simply forget to bring their voter ID?”

Mr Rowley responded: “Many council seats have been decided on a very small number of votes in Northern Ireland for 20 years, and the change … was brought in by the Labour Party in 2003 to ensure voter identification in that area.”

Tory former minister Brendan Clarke-Smith said constituency Labour Party meetings “regularly … request voter ID”.

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