The Voter Suppression Playbook Is Britain’s Latest Toxic Import From the US

The Voter Suppression Playbook Is Britain’s Latest Toxic Import From the US

The Voter Suppression Playbook Is Britain’s Latest Toxic Import From the US

The slogan is “voter integrity.” The targets are minority voters.


London—In the Summer of 2016, I was hired by a New York–based documentary company—the American Issues Initiative—to investigate voter suppression in the lead-up to the US presidential election. At the time, knowing no better, I proudly claimed that voter suppression wasn’t an issue in Britain.

What I should have said was that voter suppression wasn’t an issue here yet.

Because over the course of the last year, the pernicious misnomer of voter fraud, imported from the corridors of power in Washington, has been brought into the mainstream of British politics. The ruling Conservative Party has made a manifesto commitment to “protect the integrity of our democracy, by introducing identification to vote at polling stations.”

To Americans, the language should sound familiar. Integrity, that galvanizing buzzword, with which the American right has effectively suppressed the minority vote, has been employed to stoke the fears of the British electorate.

In the most recent general election held in the United Kingdom, there were approximately 44.8 million eligible voters. The number of allegations of voter impersonation was 28, or about 0.000063 percent of those eligible to vote. Of these allegations, only one resulted in a conviction. Hardly an epidemic, you might think, but the problem was still deemed serious enough for the government to institute a set of voter ID trials in the 2018 local elections. The results showed that 0.14 percent of those eligible to vote were turned away because they did not have valid forms of identification.

What should any reasonable person conclude from these statistics? In trying to respond to a minuscule problem, the government has proposed a solution that does more harm than good. Yet that is not the conclusion the Conservative leadership has arrived at. As recently as the spring, they organized another pilot in which 10 local authorities were to try out voter ID. This led to around 2000 would-be voters’ being turned away from the polls, of whom 750 did not return to cast their ballots.

In Pendle, for instance, of the 284 people who were initially refused paper ballots, 101 did not return to vote. As a percentage of voters at the polling station, the total who did not return to vote reached 0.70 percent—a much more alarming statistic than the 0.00006 percent rate of voter impersonation in the last general election.

So why, then, with the benefit of this information, has the Conservative Party made voter identification a part of its manifesto? Could it be because the problem it is actually trying to solve is not what it claims? Here it might be worth considering the origins of the Voter Integrity movement in the United States to see if any parallels can be drawn.

In the 2008 US presidential election, almost 5 million more ethnic-minority voters turned out than in 2004, according to statistics released by the Census Bureau. The result of this increase was the election of the first nonwhite president in the history of the United States. It was only after this landmark poll that the so-called Voter Integrity movement gained traction—and only after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 that the floodgates to voter suppression laws were opened. The implication was clear. Minority voters had elected a minority president; they had to be stopped from doing so again. Indeed, so abhorrent were some of the tactics employed in North Carolina that a federal court struck down a voter ID law on the basis that it targeted black voters, “with almost surgical precision.”

Is that what the Tories are trying to do in Britain? Just as in America, it is the nonwhite voters of the United Kingdom who would be most impacted by the introduction of voter ID. In 2016, The Electoral Commission reported that 76 percent of white Britons had a driver’s license in the period 2013–17. They were followed by Asian people at 62 percent, people from other ethnic groups at 61 percent, people with mixed ethnicity at 59 percent, and black people at 52 percent. Add to this the fact that the Labour Party received 77 percent of all ethnic-minority votes in the 2017 general election, and it is impossible to come to any other conclusion than that the voter suppression tactics of the American right have been adopted by the Conservative Party here in Britain.

Not that this should surprise us, of course. From the disastrous war in Afghanistan to the misadventure in Libya, there is seemingly no bad idea that hasn’t crossed the Atlantic. The Voter Integrity movement, it seems, is the latest import, something the former Labour leader Ed Miliband highlighted on Twitter when he said, “Photo ID to vote without any evidence of a problem such an obvious US voter suppression move.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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