Throughout his time as UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has tried to distance himself from the insinuation that he is the British equivalent of Donald Trump, a comparison that the former US President himself was keen to make.
But one of Johnson’s most recent policy proposals has undeniable echoes of what became the cornerstone of Trump’s claim that he was the legitimate victor of the 2020 presidential election.
On Tuesday, Queen Elizabeth set out the Johnson government’s legislative agenda for the coming year in what is known as the Queen’s Speech. The document is written by the government and read out by the UK head of state in the Houses of Parliament.
In the address, the Queen said that under the new Electoral Integrity Bill: “Legislation will be introduced to ensure the integrity of elections.”
The government claims the new election rules would protect postal and proxy voting, and clamp down on voter intimidation.
Controversially, however, the new legislation would require voters to show identification to cast their ballots at a polling station.
While the government claims that this will give voters “confidence that their vote is theirs, and theirs alone, by tackling electoral fraud,” the reality is that such offenses are extremely rare in the UK.
Stuart Wilks-Heeg, reader in politics at the University of Liverpool, explains that what gets recorded as an allegation of electoral crime is wide-ranging and often based on archaic laws. “This can range from offering voters free food or refreshments, something which became an issue during the EU referendum when pro-remain campaigners offered croissants to voters, to the address of a printer being left off a leaflet.”
In the vast majority of these cases, no action is taken.
At the more serious end of the scale – such as impersonation at polling stations, destroying ballot papers and intimidation – the number of allegations of such incidents reported to police that are then reviewed by the electoral commission is tiny.
Matt Hancock, Johnson’s health secretary, was forced to admit on Sky News that there were only six instances of voter fraud at the country’s last general election in 2019, a poll that over 47 million people were registered to vote in.
Why, then, is Johnson and his government doing this? A simple explanation could be that the UK government is putting on a performance for its core voter base: socially conservative voters in England.
Election crimes have taken place in several areas with high populations of black and minority ethnic voters.
The most high-profile case of serious election crime in recent memory was in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where former mayor Lutfur Rahman was removed from office after being found guilty of electoral fraud through impersonation and postal vote fraud among other offenses.
More than two-thirds of Tower Hamlet’s population are from ethnic minority groups. Of course, Rahman is the guilty party here and the population of Tower Hamlets were the people he defrauded, but that doesn’t necessarily stop people from falsely conflating minority groups with electoral crime.
It doesn’t take a huge leap to see that socially conservative English voters see a policy tackling election fraud and view it as a policy aimed at punishing ethnic minority groups.
Critics of the move point out that parliament’s own data suggests the policy will disproportionately affect ethnic minorities. A parliamentary report published last year found that while 76% of the UK adult population holds a driving license, “38% of Asian people, nearly a third of people of mixed ethnicity (31%), and more than half of Black people (48%) do not.”
However, even this provides evidence to suggest that the way the policy was announced was designed to cause controversy in a way that would play to Johnson’s debate. While the Queen’s Speech and accompanying documents were vague in what counts as identification, the Cabinet Office quietly issued a press release saying that a very broad range of documents, that in some cases are more likely to be held by these groups, would be acceptable.
Engineered storm or not, some members of Johnson’s Conservative party are appalled by the proposal. “It’s a form of passive discrimination and a bad solution in search of a problem that seems not to exist,” says David Davis, a former Conservative cabinet minister. “It seems to me that stripping hundreds of thousands of people of their right to vote because they don’t have ID with them on election day is far worse than a handful of people casting fraudulent votes.”
The echoes of voter suppression have not gone unnoticed among Trump supporters in the United States. Jenna Ellis, a former legal adviser to Trump, gleefully tweeted at another electoral lawyer, “is the Queen racist?” And Conservative commentators Charlie Kirk and Kyle Becker joked that the left would try to cancel the Queen and that she was triggering the left.
Leaving aside the fact that the Queen has no input on the Queen’s Speech and simply reads out the words placed in front of her by the government of the day, if the measures did suppress minority voters, it would benefit Johnson as these groups on the whole do not vote Conservative.
This is on the whole also the case in the United States. Even though Joe Biden lost some of the minority vote that Hillary Clinton gained in 2016, the divide between racial and ethnic minority groups still hugely favored the Democrats in 2020.
Since Biden’s election of Joe Biden, the states of Georgia and Florida have signed into law rules that would suppress the votes of minority voters. As we learned through the numerous times Trump’s claims of electoral fraud were rejected, it is also not a major problem in the US.
The Brennan Center has previously found that most incidents of voter fraud are traceable to “other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices” and Trump’s own attorney general said that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Voter suppression is a sinister reality of the divisive politics that many Western democracies are now living through. And the more that like-minded groups join up in their efforts to stop people they don’t like from voting, the more valid their actions might seem to onlookers.
So, perhaps Johnson should have thought twice before sending one of the most popular figures on the planet to read out policy that was catnip to US politicians who are seeking new and creative ways to smooth their path to victory in the future.