Voter suppression in the UK?

The Guardian scoop today on photo ID requirement in UK elections references a @commonslibrary report estimates that 3.5m UK adults lack photo ID required to vote.

In the US, the Republican Party has been accused of playing this move to exclude Black voters from voting, and the accusation looks pretty compelling.

My gut reaction, like those trending across Twitter, was that the move to require photo IDs to vote in the UK is the Conservative Party’s version of voter-suppression.

That gut reaction might well be right, but it doesn’t look like it is supported by ONS Census data.

There appear to be three dimensions of exclusion/ suppression that are trending: age, ethnicity, and wealth.

First, age. It’s not immediately clear to me whether the mechanism for youth voter-suppression is thought to be the additional friction involved in the voting process, or because it is assumed the young have lower access to photo ID.

Young people are not very good at voting today, so I can see that adding additional hurdles might be reasonably likely to worsen youth turnout further.

Second, ethnicity. This tweet from @jasebyjason was matched by many other good tweeps

The stat looks to be sourced from this @electoralreform story saying 48% of Black people don’t hold a full driving license.

Third, wealth. Passports in the UK are expensive things, and it seems reasonable to guess that passport ownership might be proportionate to wealth.

There’s also the direct partisan skew about which @jburnmurdoch and @chrishanretty have done research (which is quite striking!!)

What can we say about the evidence behind this gut reactions from some quick Googling and pivot-tabling?

Well, the @ONS does a Census every ten years, the last for which data is available back in 2011. The 2011 Census includes a question about holding a passport – separate from nationality. I looked to see whether there was immediate data that would answer how ownership split by 1) age; 2) ethnicity, and 3) wealth, expecting that voter suppression of the young, non-white and poor to show up.

Someone put in a request for answers to this to be broken down regionally by age, sex and ethnicity back in 2016. Wealth data isn’t available, although someone smart with time on their hands could probably do something clever with regional incomes and infer it from the regional split. The data is found here.

The data did not match my priors.

I might’ve made a mistake somewhere, so please correct, but the following things can be drawn from the data:

  • Of c.65.5m people in the UK, 74% are adults with British, Irish or Commonwealth nationalities who I infer are eligible to vote in UK elections. The remaining 26% splits into minors (22%) and non-eligible adults (4%).
  • Of these 74% eligible voters, a full 15% don’t have passports (ie, 9% of the population are adults without passports, 64% are adults with passports). This is not to say that they might not have driving licenses or other photo ID.

How does the age break-down of passport holdings break down? It looks like the old are the ones who are under-represented. Close to 20% of those aged 60 or over lacked a passport compared to less than 10% of 18-40yr olds:

How did the ethnicity of those lacking passports break down? It looks from the data like those self-identifying as white are under-represented as passport holders.

How about the intersection of age and ethnicity? It looks like younger non-white adults have a higher likelihood of not having a passport than older non-white adults. You can’t really tell from the chart, but just under 4.5% of non-white adults under the age of 30 lacked a passport, while the proportion according to the ONS is around 2.5% for the over 50s.

What does this all mean?

  • Does this make requiring photo IDs good? No.
  • Does this mean that requiring photo IDs will not deliver a partisan skew to voting? No.
  • Does it mean that the proposal isn’t a cynical attempt to gerrymander demographically? No.

All this means is that if someone designed a requirement to have photo ID to vote based on the understanding that it would exclude younger and less white adults, this understanding does not appear to be aligned with the ONS Census passport data question.

Or the data is wrong.