Compulsory voter ID would only add to Britain’s democratic deficit

4 Jan 2017

In true festive spirit, the government chose December 27 to respond to former local government minister Eric Pickles’ proposals to tackle alleged voter fraud in UK elections. Sadly, the response isn’t much of a belated Christmas present for our poorly balanced democracy.

Let’s start with a bit of context. In August, Sir Pickles’s report, Securing the ballot: review into electoral fraudwas released. It was commissioned after an election court judgement in 2015 which barred the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, for a number of illegal practices.

It was a shocking case, but whether it alone justified the report’s 50 recommendations for the whole of the UK – including the introduction of mandatory voter ID – is another question. More importantly though, it was shocking because it was rare, and it was dealt with effectively through existing British law.

Now the government have published their response. The main story is that in the 2018 local elections, it will be compulsory to bring ID to the polling station in a number of areas across England. (Scotland and Wales will soon have control over electoral practice and registration.)

There are a large number of reasons why this is a bad idea. Here are a few for starters:

  1. This is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Pickles’s report drew largely on anecdote and self-professed claims to have witnessed (or even just heard about) electoral fraud.

Almost none of those claims were tested in a court, but they are now being used as grounds for a major change to the nature and accessibility of voting in Britain.

  1. This will almost certainly hit voter participation. What voter ID represents is a barrier to engagement – if you don’t have the ID, or even just forget it on the day, you can’t vote.

In doing so it makes politics less accessible to those already most excluded, since it is often the most marginalised who have no photo ID.

It penalises the many for the alleged actions of a few. A large number of honest voters will be put off voting through these measures. There’s evidence that strict voter ID rules in some US states disproportionately disadvantages ethnic minority voters and already-marginalised groups.

  1. Even before it’s begun, millions have been written off from voting. 3.5 million electors – 7.5 per cent of the electorate – have no acceptable piece of photo ID, according to the Electoral Commission.

Because photo ID would be required for any anti-fraud proposals to be the most secure, that’s a big chunk of the electorate written off – forcing them to buy a passport, driving license, or 'proof of age' age card: financial and time costs which are in themselves disincentives to vote. That's not to mention the fact that people often look very different in their photo ID to how they look today. Of course, you could allow other less expensive or more accessible forms of ID, but...

  1. Even the ‘soft’ version of these plans would do more harm than good. Think about it: if you mandate that everyone must bring either official ID or a utility bill (something which will be piloted), those who actually want to defraud the political system will simply opt for the latter.

Even the 'proof of age' cards are produced by a dozen companies, with very different appearances. How thousands of local polling clerks are meant to accurately distinguish between the genuine and the fraudulent out of these dozens of cards is as yet unclear.

Meanwhile, one option is to also allow 'A locally recognised photographic identification card (e.g. local travel card or pass).' Many of these can be purchased without much proof of identity at all – and that's aside from the fact that you do have to buy one in the first place.

It should be obvious to say, but to take one example here: utility bills are highly forgeable. If you have basic Word skills you can forge them. So, if you don’t require photo ID and allow instead utility bills, then – excuse the pun – these plans are barely worth the paper they’re written on.

The panoply of IDs potentially allowed sounds like a recipe for error and ineffectiveness. Literally all you are doing it putting a pointless barrier up to the vast majority of the electorate who are honest voters.

None of this is to go into the other plans the government have regarding postal voting, changing the deadline on proxy vote applications, the possibility of setting up police cordons sanitaire around polling stationsor making it much easier to challenge election results.

But the voter ID plan is the one which will have the biggest – and potentially the most democratically detrimental – impact.

258 MILLION votes have been cast in the UK since 2009, and 55 million in 2016 alone. There is scant evidence that more than a tiny fraction of those millions of votes were cast fraudulently. And no one is claiming that election results would be any different if these recommendations had been in place before.

So the government needs to think very carefully before using an extremely blunt instrument to deal with a complex and varied issue – and one that can likely be tackled by properly funding, training and advising Electoral Returning Officers, election observers, and fraud investigation teams on all this.

While voter ID might sound like an easy option, raising barriers to voting is rarely something to be welcomed, particularly in our already less-than-perfect democracy. Now put that sledgehammer away…


5 Responses to Compulsory voter ID would only add to Britain’s democratic deficit

Adam Nix 4 Jan 2017

Seems to me that the largest opportunity for electoral fraud lies with postal and proxy voting. Having worked as a Poll Clerk for a couple of elections, systems are already in place so that if 2 people claiming to be the same person try to vote the crime can be detected (can't tell which is the real Mr X but can certainly tell that he tried to vote twice). 
Apparently there is a problem with certain sections of society where 'community leaders' tell the members of that community how they should vote- with postal and proxy votes now being available on demand that mechanism is easily exploited. I believe that if obtaining a postal or proxy vote was made far more difficult (eg evidence of employment overseas/out of the area or pre booked holiday, hospitalization or military service was required) then this fraud would disappear. 
One easy way of reducing the perceived need for postal or proxy voting would be to open a polling booth (in the local town hall) some days before Election day- perhaps from the date when postal votes are sent out to those who qualify for them. This would massively reduce the number of people really needing a postal or proxy vote and would allow plenty of time for the more isolated (socially and physically) to actually get to a private place to cast their vote. 
Requiring photo ID is a red herring- the problem is not with persons turning up at polling stations pretending to be someone else. The main electoral fraud would appear to be external influence on postal and proxy voters. Remove the postal and proxy votes and the problem goes away

Barry 6 Jan 2017

We have the Labour Party to blame for this. They, along with the support of the then Tory leader, Michael Howard, introduced postal ballot voting on demand, in order to stop losing local government by-elections to the BNP who were winning them off  Labour on mostly low turnouts. Many Labour voters are (I am not doing my best not to be nasty here) a bit lazy when it comes to turning-up and actually voting rather than just saying they intend to vote for that party so it was introduced for ulterior party political motives.
That being said, postal voting should be restricted to those who actually do need to have them in order to vote such as people who are seriously ill ect.  I agree with you that this would go quite a long way towards solving this problem.

Lili 5 Jan 2017

Honestly I feel like I'd accept it if there was a free nationalised ID in place here, but there isn't. I can't afford to drop £34 on a provisional license when I barely need it, I don't drink or smoke but then it's necessary for other aspects of proving your identity or you have to have five different forms from the last two months, for it to be equivalent.
We either need a national ID or a cheaper alternative if they're deadset on this idea. God knows if you can't afford to drop a tenner super friviously there's no way you can afford 3_, especially not with the increase of the relative poverty here lately and all the cuts to the benefits system which the most vulnerable are likely to be on.
....It's just depressing at this point how many barriers there are for people.

Barry 6 Jan 2017

We should have a national ID card scheme not just for this purpose but because we need one to properly defend our borders. We have large numbers of illegal immigrants in this country who have managed to evade our supposedly 'tough' immigration rules because we lack this.

Lydia 6 Jan 2017

I think everyone living here in the UK should have Identity Cards anyway, so what's the problem,  If you are here, accessing healthcare, education, benefits etc.   Postal and proxy voting needs tightening up, to prevent fraud and stop pressure on some communities filling in voting forms for others.  Everyone living here should learn to speak and read/write English as a prerequisite to vote.  How else can they make an informed choice - of their own???
Voter fraud also occurs at the Count, where ballot boxes have "gone missing", votes shoved under the tables, etc.  Don't say it doesn't happen, we've seen it.

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