The government want to make it compulsory for voters in England, Scotland and Wales to show photo identification before casting their ballots. They say the legislation will “tackle electoral fraud and protect our democracy.”
The announcement has already whipped up a storm, with the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn describing the move as an attempt to “suppress voters” and “rig” the next election.
So what are the government planning? How many people could be prevented from voting? And should we be worried about election fraud?
What’s the situation at the moment?
If you want to vote in a UK election, you need to be on the electoral register. That requires filling out a form online or on paper that asks for your name, address, date of birth and national insurance number. You don’t need to show any photographic ID to get on the electoral roll.
A few days before the ballot, you’ll be sent a polling card telling you when and where to vote. In England, Scotland and Wales, you can simply turn up at the polling station and give your name and address. There’s no need to bring a polling card or any other ID.
Some people vote by postal ballots, or nominate another person to vote on their behalf — both require an extra layer of registration in advance.
What are the government planning?
If government plans go ahead, voters in England, Scotland and Wales will need to show photographic ID at the polling station before they can get a ballot paper.
People who don’t currently have photo-ID will be able to apply for a free “local electoral identity document.” The plans are very similar to what already happens in Northern Ireland.
This is in line with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions, which recommended in 2010 that “serious consideration should be given to introducing a more robust mechanism for identification of voters.” They suggested that “existing national and local government-issued cards” would be appropriate.
Is electoral fraud a big problem in Britain?
The Electoral Commission, which regulates voting and political parties says there was “no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud” in 2018.
Police investigated 266 allegations in 2018, which led to one conviction and two suspects accepting police cautions. In 2017, when the UK last went to the polls for a General Election, there was one conviction and eight suspects accepted police cautions.
This is a tiny fraction of the millions of votes cast in each ballot.
But as ever, we should remember that police records can only tell us about the number of cases that come to the attention of police and electoral officials. There may be others that slip under the radar. This concern was raised in Conservative peer Eric Pickles’ 2016 report titled “Securing the Ballot”.
Indeed, the government aren’t necessarily claiming that this is a widespread problem right now: they say they want to head off the “potential” for electoral fraud in the current system.
How do we know if voter ID will reduce fraud?
In 2019, a dozen local authorities ran pilots using different types of voter ID in council elections. Two councils, Woking and Pendle, trialled the photo-ID model that the government now plan to pursue.
The Electoral Commission found “there were no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations in the pilot scheme at the May 2019 elections.” But that’s not especially surprising, given we’re talking about 12 council areas and the number of recorded cases nationwide is so tiny anyway.
We have no way of knowing whether the absence of recorded fraud in these council elections is thanks to the voter ID scheme or not.
How many people will be prevented from voting?
The fear that has animated much of the debate around voter ID is that thousands, or some claim millions, of citizens will be unable to vote.
Many commentators have highlighted eye-watering figures from the Electoral Commission, which estimated in 2016 that 3.5 million potential voters do not have a photographic form of ID. That means no driving licence, passport, bus pass or photo Oyster card.
So would that mean millions of people are suddenly disenfranchised by the introduction of voter ID? No.
What much of this coverage has missed is that the government’s plan explicitly states that “any voter who does not have an approved form of ID [i.e. a passport, driving licence, etc.] will be able to apply, free of charge, for a local electoral identity document.”
Indeed, the same Electoral Commission report that has been cited so widely for its stats on people without photo-ID goes on to discuss how a “Voter Card” in the style of Northern Ireland’s Electoral Identity Card would “bridge the gap” in the rest of the UK.
In the two pilot areas, people without photo-ID could apply for a “Local Elector ID” until 5pm on the day before the poll. Woking Council issued 24 such documents, and Pendle issued 70.
The government have yet to say exactly what form the alternative ID document would take in a national rollout.
How many people were turned away in the pilot schemes?
According to the Electoral Commission, 371 people were initially turned away from polling stations in the two councils that trialled photo-ID schemes in the 2019 local elections because they didn’t have the correct ID. Of those, 123 didn’t come back.
The number of people who didn’t return (and therefore didn’t vote) equates to 0.4 per cent of all the votes cast in those council areas.
That sounds pretty small, but unfortunately, the sample size here is so tiny that it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about what would happen if photo-ID requirements were rolled out nationwide.
And as for the types of people who were unable to vote, the picture’s even less clear.
The Electoral Commission says polling station staff were not asked to collect demographic data on the voters they turned away “owing to the practical challenges involved.”
They have, however, managed to work out which council wards were issued fewer ballots. This data reveals that in Pendle, one of the authorities that trialled photo-ID, there is a “weak correlation” between the proportion of Asian people living in a council ward and the number of people from there who turned up with the wrong ID or none. So it’s possible that this community could be affected by the policy more than others — but ultimately, it’s still too early to tell.
Will it put people off even trying to vote?
One of the arguments against introducing voter ID is that adding any complexity in the process will put some people off voting altogether. That may well be true in principle, but it’s not clear that the new plans will actually change much in practice.
Nearly three quarters of voters polled by Ipsos MORI as part of the government review believe (wrongly) that they already need photo ID in order to vote. Nearly half said they thought they needed to show their polling card, which is also incorrect.
Just 8 per cent of people realise that, for now at least, they don’t need to bring anything with them to the polling station. These are all figures from areas that did not take part in the ID trials, and are representative of the wider population in England.
The government points out that these results may “suggest that showing some form of ID” is “already considered part of the process at the polling station.”
Indeed, it seems there are more pressing factors that put people off voting. The same polling asked those who didn’t vote in the local elections give reasons. The most popular answer in the two areas that trialled photo-ID was not having the time to do so (20 per cent of replies), rather than concerns about ID.
The Electoral Commission found similar results from its surveys of people living in the areas that trialled voter-ID in 2019. Some 30 per cent of citizens who didn’t vote said they were “too busy”, 9 per cent were away on holiday, and 6 per cent forgot. Just 1 per cent said they didn’t have the right ID and less than 1 per cent said it was because they disagreed with the introduction of the ID requirement.
Here’s what we know about the government’s plans to require photographic ID at the ballot box:
- There is no evidence of wide-scale electoral fraud in the UK, and the number of cases that make it to the police are tiny compared to the total votes cast. Although we don’t know how many cases of electoral fraud slip under officials’ radar.
- The Electoral Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have recommended that the UK introduce some form of voter ID.
- Around 7 per cent of voters don’t have photographic ID, but when the new policy is introduced, they will be able to apply for a free “local elector ID” to allow them to vote. This is essentially what already happens in Northern Ireland, where voter ID has been in place since 2003.
- We have very limited data from pilots of the new scheme in two council areas. These trials found 0.4 per cent of voters who went to polling stations were turned away and did not return due to problems with their ID.
- In one area that trialled the scheme, it seemed that Asian communities were more adversely affected by the need for photo-ID, although this data is extremely limited due to the small sample size.
- It’s not clear that voter ID will affect people’s likelihood of voting: the most common reason people cite for not voting is not having enough time. In areas that trialled photo-ID systems, less than two per cent of people said the new requirement was the reason they didn’t take part.