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How is the future of Welsh democracy looking? – Maddy Dhesi

17 Jan 2022

Maddy Dhesi is a recent first time voter from North Wales who has been campaigning on the Elections Bill against voter ID and for residence based voting rights in England and Northern Ireland.

Voting is the only guaranteed way that we can make our voices heard, which is why it is exceptionally worrying that in three out of four elections held in Wales, turnouts have never risen over 50%.

The four types of elections held in Wales are Police and Crime Commissioner, General elections, Senedd elections, and local elections. The former two are run under the UK Government’s rules, and the latter the Welsh Government’s. Previously, there has always been some variation between election rules. But now, the UK and Welsh Government’s approaches are significantly diverging.

Why is this? You may have heard of the Counsel General’s announcement of trials for voting in supermarkets and leisure centres, as well as a possibility of the size of the Senedd increasing and local elections being allowed to trial the more democratic voting system of single transferable vote. Though not tackling all causes of Wales’s democratic deficit, this is at least indicative that the Welsh Government is not lying dormant when it comes to Welsh democracy. The UK Government is a different story.

The UK Government’s Elections Bill has just approached report stage and third reading in. The Bill is controversial to say the least and the Welsh Government has refused legislative consent for the Bill (previously an unprecedented move, but lately an increasing occurrence).

The first problem of the Elections Bill? It reintroduces First Past the Post in PCC elections held Wales. First Past the Post is the voting system used for general elections in the UK and generally means that voters have to vote for the two biggest parties within their constituency otherwise risk their vote being wasted. In the 2019 General Election, over 70% of votes in the UK did not go towards electing an MP as a result of the unequal voting system.

Currently, in Wales’ local and general elections, First Past the Post is used and many voters have to decide between voting tactically and losing their vote. Senedd elections use a fairer more proportional system (called the Additional member system). The decision of the UK Government’s Elections Bill to change the voting system of PCC elections to First Past the Post is perplexing in the context of the Welsh Government moving towards more democratic voting systems too. It is also fitting with the most contentious policy of the Bill for Wales, which actively makes voting more difficult under a not so impenetrable guise of protecting from voter fraud.

Just four days after the Senedd election votes were cast in May 2021 and it was announced that at least 35,000 young people in Wales did not register to vote, the Queen’s Speech outlined the UK Government’s plans to implement Voter ID in elections – this will impact General and PCC elections.

Voter ID means that in order to be able to vote, you must provide an acceptable form of photo ID. The UK Government says this is to protect voter fraud, though out of tens of millions of votes cast, there have only been two convictions for voter fraud since 2017.

For those of us who have ID, the biggest issue of requiring ID for voting could merely be remembering to bring it along with you to the polling station on election day. However, this was a very concerning issue noted in the voter ID trials held in 2018 and 2019 where over 1,000 people were denied a vote for forgetting their ID and did not return back.

And what about those young people who can’t afford a photo ID? Under the 18 year-old national minimum wage, it would cost a young voter just under a full day of work to be able to afford a Provisional licence application and over 12 hours of work in order to finance a new passport (which can cost up to £85). This is placing, not just a barrier in front of the ballot box that will make voting harder, but a disproportionate burden on young people than other age groups to acquire ID.

Voter ID doesn’t just disproportionately harm young people, it impacts other marginalised people too, particularly Black, Asian and ethnic minority voters since access to photo ID carrying a racial disparity. Whilst over three quarters of White people are reported to have at least one type of photo ID, only 48% of Black people and 31% of Asian people can say the same. Rejected voters are therefore more likely to be people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, creating an electoral system that is more of a reflection of the UK’s White population whilst excluding ethnic minority groups that are already barely represented in the House of Commons, with only 10% of the 650 MPs coming from an ethnic minority background. Wales only has three MSs in the Senedd and currently no MPs in Parliament from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

Access to photo ID is also disproportionate amongst trans and non-binary people, homeless people, disabled people, older people, and people who may not easily afford ID. This is a policy that isolates serious numbers of marginalised individuals from an important democratic process.

In 1987, Northern Ireland had high levels of documented voter fraud so introduced photo ID alongside, and eventually also introduced, a free Electoral Identity Card for those who cannot afford Photo ID. The application process – whilst it requires either the cost of travelling in person to obtain a free card or the cost of taking a passport appropriate photo – is relatively simple and affordable in comparison to passport and driving licence IDs. However, it is estimated that over 3.5 million people in the UK do not have photo ID, twice Northern Ireland’s whole population, and implementing a scheme to provide something similar to Northern Ireland’s electoral card would carry great costs when there is no evidence of a major problem with fraud.

Without a free and accessible electoral identity card scheme, that is as easy to apply for as it is to register to vote, everything that is required to obtain a photo ID is finicky and time consuming. Lengthening the process it takes to vote will ostracise the young voters that are needed for a representative democracy. In Wales our recent election turnouts have ranged from 66.6% in the 2019 General Election to 46.6% in the 2021 Senedd election. Undeniably, effort is needed to in Wales bring voters to the polls. Why disillusion voters and especially young people by making the process costly and difficult?

One way to solidify a better future for Welsh democracy is to enable young people with appropriate levels of political knowledge, accessibility, and passion for voting. Instead of pursuing this future, the Elections Bill acts utterly ignorant of the issues with Welsh democracy, and instead only counteracts the positive changes that we currently have or the Welsh Government is moving towards.

The Elections Bill contains more provisions that will deter someone from voting than increase them to vote. Whether this be through another wasted vote of First Past the Post, or because they cannot get appropriate photo ID to vote, it is harmful for Welsh democracy. As much as the various elections that make up Welsh democracy have all these pros and cons, like it or not, they all contribute to how well we get our voices heard. So need to be a lot more concerned about this Bill’s attacks.

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