Local elections: Polling stations hit with arguments over masks

A voter ID law rolled out across the country ahead of the 4 May local elections saw voters required to bring photo ID to vote

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - MAY 04: A polling station is pictured as people go to the polls in the local elections on May 04, 2023 in Middlesbrough, England. This year’s local elections are being held across more than 230 councils in England and cover district councils, metropolitan boroughs and unitary authorities. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Some immunocompromised people said they were unable to vote because they couldn't safely remove their face masks. (Getty Images)

Arguments broke out at polling stations across the UK as immunocompromised people were told to remove face masks or risk losing their chance to vote, a campaign group has said.

New voter ID laws rolled out across the country ahead of the 4 May local elections saw voters required to bring photo ID to vote, and to show their face to match their ID.

But immunosuppressed people who wear face masks in public places were left out in the cold after the new rules stated they must remove their masks in polling stations.

"We knew this was going to happen," said Mark Oakley, the co-founder of patient campaign group Evusheld. "We've had people on the group saying 'well I'm just not going to go and vote'. There's a group of people that you can count who are simply not going to go out and vote because of this.

"We know from other things on Twitter and from other people who have gone there and had to have arguments, and staff in the polling stations have relented, and there have been other people who have been turned away. So it has affected people."

Several immunosuppressed Twitter users shared their experiences at the polling booth, with one writing: "Not allowed to vote once inside, despite bringing ID & video of me putting on mask, as no options for reasonable adjustments for those who are #immunosuppressed. Recorded as turned away with reason: no guidance for those with Disability."

Some Twitter users said they had been allowed to lower their mask outside so as not having to compromise their position, but others weren't so lucky.

Gina Miller, from the True & Fair party told Yahoo News UK: "This whole ID thing is turning into a nightmare - it was supposed to solve a non existing problem but its creating them.

"I was very concerned that there hadn't been any plans for this or any proper training of polling staff.

"This is really really complex. There are multiple problems here that are disenfranchising people at a time when people are already suspicious and trust is low - these are just barriers to democracy."

Oakley said that people had become aware there was an issue after the date for postal voting had closed, although guidance was available online, but that despite writing to the Electoral Commission ahead of polling, nothing had been done.

"When you've got someone that's been shielding for three years, going into the fourth year, the last thing they want to do is stand in front of someone in an inside environment where they're advised not to go anyway, and stand in front of someone, take their mask down when that person is directly in front of them and they have no clue if they have COVID," he said.

"That is coming from a situation where it has been totally avoidable but no one has done anything about it."

A letter sent to the group by the Electoral Commission, seen by Yahoo News UK, said they could provide no guarantee that masks could be removed in an outdoor area to verify ID, and suggested people make use of proxy voting in future.

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: "Voters who wear a face covering for any reason, such as on medical grounds, will be asked to momentarily remove it so polling station staff can check their photo ID looks like them. Face coverings can be worn for the rest of the voting process.

"We will publish a report after these elections, looking at evidence about how they were run and how voters found taking part, to inform the wider public debate about this new policy. We may also identify recommendations for changes to legislation to make improvements for future elections. As part of that process, we will take into account voters’ concerns and any evidence about the experience of voters who are immunocompromised."