A legal challenge to the government’s plans for pilot schemes in 11 local authority areas which will require voters to produce identification before they can vote has been launched today.
Neil Coughlan, 64, from Witham in Essex, is challenging the government’s plans as he believes them to be unlawful. He argues that the Government does not have legal authority under the Representation of the People Act 2000 to introduce pilots which will deter people from voting in the 2019 local elections.
Neil, represented by law firm Leigh Day, argues in his letter before action to the Minister for the Cabinet Office that the pilot schemes are unlawful under the Representation of the People Act 2000 because there is no legal basis for the Government under the Act to make changes to the voting system, that make it harder for people to vote. Any such pilots or changes to voting should be decided by parliament not the Executive.
The decision to implement the pilot schemes will be made by the government using secondary legislation – bypassing the chance for parliament to scrutinise the plans. The legal case argues that the government is acting unlawfully because it does not have the power under the Act to introduce pilots like this that restrict voting rights.
Neil does not have photographic ID and believes many of his neighbours do not possess the required documents either. He believes many will be discouraged from voting in the pilot areas and is concerned that if this scheme is rolled out nationally it will serve to disenfranchise many voters.
The potential impact if the pilot scheme was to be rolled out across the country could be huge as according to the Electoral Commission 3.5 million electors (7.5% of the electorate) do not have any photo ID. If restricted to passports and driving licenses, potentially 11 million electors (24% of the electorate) would not have the right ID to comply with the scheme.
In addition, the government has stated that the pilots will help tackle voter fraud by impersonation, however, this is a very rare occurrence with only 28 cases of voter fraud out of a total of 44,000,000 votes cast across the country in 2017 according to the Electoral Commission.
A similar pilot scheme requiring photographic identification was run in five local authority areas in the May 2018 local government elections. Official figures showed that 1036 people did not have the right identification, around 330 of those did not return to the polling station to vote after being turned away.
The letter before action asks the Minister for the Cabinet Office to withdraw the pilot schemes from all 11 areas - Braintree District Council, Pendle Borough Council, East Staffordshire Borough Council, Woking Borough Council, Ribble Valley Borough Council, Broxtowe Borough Council, Derby City Council, North Kesteven District Council, Mid Sussex District Council, Watford Borough Council and North West Leicestershire District Council. If the government does not agree Neil will begin judicial review proceedings.
Neil has launched a fundraising campaign for the case via CrowdJustice.
Neil Coughlan said:
“This legal challenge is vital for defending our democracy against the Government's dangerous Voter ID plans, which I believe will suppress voter participation, particularly in less affluent wards, where turnout is all too often, already low. I am extremely concerned that the Government is trying to make it harder for people to vote.”
Tessa Gregory, solicitor at law firm Leigh Day, said:
“Any changes which could restrict or deter people from carrying out their democratic right to vote ought to be subject to proper scrutiny by parliament. Our client believes that the Minister is acting unlawfully in introducing these Voter ID pilot schemes because, by making it harder for people to vote, he is going beyond the powers given to him by parliament under the Representation of the People Act 2000.”