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 fraud, was 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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...
- 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 stations, or 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…