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A Magazine for Sheffield

Nearly 200 people were disenfranchised in Sheffield’s local elections as a result of voter suppression tactics

In Beighton, two people were unable to vote due to not having acceptable ID – the same number the seat was won by after a recount.

City centre town hall 4
Rachel Rae Photography

Statistics released by Sheffield City Council have revealed the number of people that were unable to vote in last month’s local elections as a result of new rules that have been it harder for members of marginalised groups and the least well-off to vote.

562 people across the city were turned away from polling stations on 2 May due to not having an acceptable form of voter ID. Council figures show that 366 of those later returned with an acceptable form of ID and were able to vote, but 197 people did not or could not.

New rules were introduced by the government for all elections in advance of the 2023 local elections, requiring voters to present an acceptable form of photo ID to be able to cast a ballot.

At the time, government ministers falsely claimed that this change was needed to tackle voter fraud. In reality, voter fraud is a virtually non-existent problem in the UK, and any MPs claiming that the new rules were needed for this reason would have been aware of this. Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Green Party all voted against the change.

Between 2019 and 2023, data from the Electoral Commission shows that there were only eleven convictions and four cautions issued for voter fraud (out of around 46.5 million eligible voters). At the 2019 general election, just one person was convicted for voter impersonation out of over 32 million votes cast.

Red dot Q98 X JVRGS0 unsplash

Voters have been required to present a valid form of photo ID since the 2023 local elections.

Red Dot on Unsplash.

Incredibly, fewer people (out of 46.5m) have been convicted of voter fraud since and including the 2019 general election than Tory MPs have been suspended from this Parliament for sexual misconduct (out of 365 Tory MPs elected in 2019).

Given that the stated aim of the new rules was to solve a near non-existent problem, why did the Conservatives decide to introduce voter ID requirements for UK elections?

Locked out of democracy

According to the Electoral Reform Society, evidence from the United States (which has a long history of voter suppression) shows that already marginalised groups are less likely to have acceptable forms of ID. This is because in countries without mandatory ID cards, richer people are more likely to already have ID (passports, for example).

Even research that the UK government commissioned itself found that “those with severely limiting disabilities, the unemployed, people without qualifications, and those who had never voted before were all less likely to hold any form of photo ID.”

The government’s own report found that 2% of people in the UK don’t have any form of photo ID (including expired or unrecognisable ID), and that 4% don’t have recognisable ID (around 2.1 million people).

Now that voter ID rules have been in place for two local elections, the disproportionate effect these rules have had on already marginalised groups is becoming clear – the new data for Sheffield’s most recent local elections shows that levels of disenfranchisement were in no way spread equally across the city.

The full data set broken down by ward (all wards are of roughly equal size) shows that less well-off areas of the city, as well as those with a higher ethnic minority population, saw far more people turned away from polling stations than richer, whiter areas.

Research by Sheffield City Council from 2011 that examined the percentage of children in each ward living in relative poverty appears to back up a link between deprivation and voter suppression.

For example, in Dore & Totley, where 4.8% of children live in relative poverty, only twelve people (out of 6,703 voters) were turned away because they lacked acceptable ID, with just four not returning at all. But in Burngreave, where 41.1% of children live in relative poverty, 82 people were turned away for lacking ID, with 16 not able to vote at all.

Firth Park, where 43.5% of children live in relative poverty, saw even higher rates of disenfranchisement, with 43 people initially being turned away and 18 then not being able to vote at all. This compares to Fulwood, where only 2.9% of children live in poverty and where only six people were eventually unable to vote.

Even small numbers of people unable to vote could make a real difference to results – in Beighton this year, the Liberal Democrats beat Labour by just two votes. The new statistics show that exactly two people were unable to vote in Beighton due to the voter suppression rules.

The official figure of 198 people being denied a vote in Sheffield also doesn't include those who never attempted to vote because they knew they didn't have the right form of ID, which could be many thousands more than the statistics show.

More democracy, not less

What could this government (and the next government) do to not just stop the erosion of democracy in the UK, but to enhance it instead?

Pro-democracy campaign the Electoral Reform Society are still calling for voter ID rules to be scrapped, pointing out that they cost £180 million a decade to administer while making it harder for members of marginalised groups and the least well-off to take part in elections.

But the next government could go much further, and scrap the unfair First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system for local elections. The FPTP system often leads to bizarre and undemocratic outcomes, where the number of councillors elected for each party can bear little relation to how many votes they received.

For example, in May’s local elections the Conservatives won 9.3% of the vote across Sheffield, but still didn’t receive a single seat on the council (out of 84).

Both national and local government could also make more radical and ambitious efforts to devolve power and decision-making down to neighbourhood level. According to Dr Simon Duffy, who is currently working on a project to map Sheffield’s neighbourhoods, “local government in the UK covers too much ground.”

“The average population size for municipal government here is 168,000 people – more than ten times the median size for other countries,” he recently wrote in Now Then. “There is an inevitable distance between the Council and the citizens of Sheffield, and it’s perhaps not surprising that decisions about local matters don’t always seem to pay much attention to local people, priorities, strengths or needs.”

Working with Tom French of Sheffield Data for Good, Dr Duffy hopes that mapping the hundreds of distinct neighbourhoods that exist across the city will be the first step in making them more visible, which would then allow us to “start to shift power, people, resources and decision-making” away from the Town Hall and into our communities.

“We can’t begin to tackle many of the problems ahead of us, as a city and as a species, without helping people make an immediate difference where they are,” writes Duffy.

Learn more

Find out more about the neighbourhood mapping work, and how you can contribute to the project by telling the team about your neighbourhood.

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