The government may have misled MPs over mandatory voter ID, after it was revealed the data cited by a minister to prove the system does not discriminate against BAME voters does not exist.
Labour has said the disconnect between the Cabinet Office’s statement and the Electoral Commission’s evidence will raise questions over whether the government has examined any evidence on the impact on ethnic minority voters of requiring voters to bring ID in order to vote.
Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said in June that “the evidence shows there is no impact on any particular demographic group … the evidence of our pilots shows that there is no impact on any particular demographic group from this policy.”
Asked for the evidence in a written question last month, Smith said: “Based on the independent Electoral Commission’s evaluations of the 2018 and 2019 voter ID pilots, there is no indication that any consistent demographic was adversely affected by the use of voter ID.”
However, in both of its most recent reports, the Electoral Commission said it had no way of measuring the effect of voter ID on minority ethnic communities’ votes.
“Polling station staff were not asked to collect demographic data about the people who did not come back, owing to the practical challenges involved in carrying out that data collection exercise,” the body’s 2019 report said.
“That means we have no direct evidence to tell us whether people from particular backgrounds were more likely than others to find it hard to show ID.”
The 2019 report found in Derby, one of the pilot areas, that there was a strong correlation between the proportion of each ward’s population from an Asian background and the number of people not issued with a ballot paper – similar to a 2018 finding in Watford.
However, the body cautioned against drawing any conclusions from that data and said there was not yet sufficient evidence in either direction.
Cat Smith, the shadow minister for voter engagement, said the Windrush scandal had shown how some communities had face severe consequences when they had no official documentation.
“The government continue to plough on with voter ID plans, turning a blind eye how this could disenfranchise ethnic minorities,” she said. “The government have stated repeatedly on record that evidence concludes voter ID has no impact on any particular demographic group. This is simply not true, the evidence does not exist.
“If these US-style voter suppression plans go ahead, we could see BAME communities locked out of democracy. The government must correct the record and recognise the damaging impact that mandatory voter ID will have upon minority ethnic groups.”
In a series of Freedom of Information requests by the Labour party, the government has also said it does not hold data on the possession of ID by ethnicity.
Voting rights groups expressed serious concern at the findings. Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said ministers had “apparently failed to gather any evidence” and said it was “baffling and looks deeply misleading”. He said the ERS research suggested the policy will disproportionately hit people of colour, older voters and those on low-incomes.
Sam Grant, policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, said: “The fact the government doesn’t have the evidence to understand what impact this will have shows it is disregarding these risks and trying to plough ahead with plans that threaten the basic foundations of our democratic system.”
In a statement, Smith said voter ID was “a reasonable way to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud in our current system and strengthen its integrity”.
Smith added that there was a “wealth of evidence to show that voter ID does not impact voter turnout” including its operation in Northern Ireland for several decades and said the studies had shown the overwhelming majority of people cast their vote successfully in the pilot schemes.
The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledged to introduce voter ID in primary legislation over the course of the parliament. The Cabinet Office said the Electoral Commission’s report had found 99.6% of electors coming to polling stations were able to cast their vote without a problem.