Voter Fraud isn’t a thing. Voter disenfranchisement is. And Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party wants to bring it to the UK.
Of the 595 cases of alleged fraud reported to authorities following the UK 2019 General Election less than ten resulted in legal proceedings. This is clearly a negligible level of voter fraud yet Boris Johnson’s government plans to introduce new photographic ID rules for voters. This intervention should be of concern to UK citizens as it represents an attack on the substance of democracy by cynically using democracy’s own structures and provides the clearest evidence of a shift by the Tories towards American-style electioneering.
The United States might present itself as a land of opportunity, freedom and equal access – the very home of modern democracy – however, it is no democratic ideal and electoral reform there is rarely motivated by a desire to improve democratic representation or increase voter participation. Indeed, for all of its history, the United States has prevented some citizens from voting. It has done so deliberately and legally – and continues to do so today. This is a design feature of American democracy – and not a bug.
A driving force behind the 1776 American Revolution was a belief there should be “No Taxation without Representation!” and the ensuing War of Independence was waged to gain independence from the perceived tyranny of remote British rule. Inspired by Enlightenment thinking, it also sought to introduce a radical new concept: Sovereignty of the People. As a Republic, the people themselves would rule, albeit indirectly, through elected representatives.
The ‘Founder Fathers’, those deified men who wrote the American Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, apparently thought Universal Suffrage was a bad idea. (They had no such compunction about slavery yet). They believed that the common people could not be trusted to resist dangerous demagogues or mob mentalities and that only men of sufficient economic status had the required wisdom and independence of thought necessary for the heavy responsibility of voting. Consequently, they offered life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but not the right to vote.
There is no automatic or constitutional right to vote assumed in American law. On the contrary, American lawmakers and law interpreters have, since the foundation of the state, considered suffrage to be a privilegebestowed by government onto the people. Over that time, this privilege has been restricted by considerations of age, sex, wealth, race, residence, literacy, criminal conviction and citizenship. The absence of a constitutional right to vote placed the granting of voting privileges into the hands of individual States and an increasingly partisan political class, which has pursued policies of disenfranchisement, deterrence and gerrymandering ever since.
(In 1812, the Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, re-drew the electoral map in a way that would favour his own party. One voting district was in a contrived shape said to resemble a salamander and the Boston Gazette ridiculed the governor’s creation as a ‘Gerry-mander’, which subsequently come to mean any manipulation of voting boundaries for political advantage).
At the core of voters’ rights issues is the US party system. George Washington anticipated this when he warned that political parties were “potent engines by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the will of the people…” in a manner that “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments riots and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption”. This reads like political analysis from the 21st century.
Back in the mid-1800s, the protection of privilege and power revolved around the issue of race. The drive to abolish slavery coupled with a movement to broaden who could vote caused consternation in the slave-owning South. The Civil War freed the slaves and ended institutional slavery in the United States but the issue of the right of former slaves to vote was unresolved until the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which prohibits denying a citizen a vote based on race.
Nonetheless, as the States retained control over the laws that governed electoral processes, new methods, such as literacy tests, poll taxes, white-only primaries, were routinely used to deter black voters. Even the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which banned some of these practices, did not preclude the restriction of minority voting though felon disenfranchisement, voter purges and racially-profiled gerrymandering. To this day, states such as Georgia, and individual voting districts slash the number of polling centres and the hours they operate and legislate in ways that appear designed to obstruct large voter turnouts from minorities.
A favoured approach of recent years has been the introduction of mandatory photo ID laws, like the one Boris Johnson wants to introduce. Organisations like the ACLU see these laws as an attack on more marginalised and poorer sections of society, who are less likely to possess the necessary documentation, especially if there is a cost involved in acquiring it. They create an unnecessary impediment to voting and represent an attempt to wedge an obstacle between citizen and vote. And certain parties perform better when fewer vote.
Perhaps immoral and discriminatory, but not unconstitutional, these tactics have been effective in achieving electoral success in the US. Unfortunately, they have also been instrumental in heightening partisan rivalries and developing the polarised and dysfunctional politics of modern America.
Boris Johnson would be doing the British a disservice by importing more of this dysfunction into the UK.