The Government is planning to trial mandatory voter ID – where voters must bring some form of identification to the ballot box – in a number of areas across the UK in 2018.
But evidence from around the world shows that forcing voters to bring photographic ID to the polling station just makes it harder for people to vote – whilst doing little to stop determined fraudsters. We don't need more barriers to people taking part in our democracy.
Electoral fraud in the UK
Thankfully electoral fraud is very rare in the UK. Where voter fraud has occurred it has been isolated, and therefore needs to be tackled locally.
51.4 million votes were cast in 2015, and there were just 130 allegations of voting offences. Of these, 26 were allegations of impersonation – the type of fraud that voter ID is designed to tackle. That’s just 0.00005% of votes cast! Adding a major barrier to democratic engagement off the back of this would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
At the same time, voter ID laws would make no difference to allegations of fraud with postal votes, proxy votes, breaches of secrecy, tampering with ballot papers, bribery, undue influence, or electoral expenditure. But it would make it harder to vote for millions of legitimate voters.
A barrier to democracy
There’s evidence that strict voter ID rules in some US states disproportionately disadvantage already marginalised groups. Why? Many citizens who can't afford to go on foreign holidays don't have passports, and those that can't drive don't have driving licences. In the 2011 Census, 9.5 million people stated they did not hold a passport, 9 million do not have a driving licence and in 2013/14 1.7 million lack even a bank account.
Allowing the use of non-photographic (and easily-forgeable) utility bills would mean the change could actually do more harm than good – making it harder to vote for honest voters, while not tackling any of the alleged problems.
Even if you have ID, forcing people to bring it to exercise their right to vote will lead to inevitable mistakes and accidents. Here's a scenario: if all the allegations of impersonation in 2015 were correct, and the real problem was in fact 10,000 times larger, it would still only take fewer than one in a hundred voters to forget their ID for the rules to have a bigger impact on the result than the alleged fraud.
Trust in our democratic system is vital, which is why scaremongering about the extent of fraud is dangerous. We need to be combatting the huge challenges that undermine our democracy, not building straw men at the polling station.
Clearer guidance and better training of election staff and Returning Officers, stronger powers against voter intimidation, and making it easier to launch ‘election petitions’ to report fraud are very much worth trialling. But the government needs to think very carefully before using an extremely blunt instrument to deal with a complex and varied issue.
So 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.