Voter ID: An Expensive Distraction

The government plans to spend millions banning people who don't have the right ID from voting.

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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 – while doing little to increase faith in the integrity of the system. We don’t need to spend millions to put up barriers to people taking part in our democracy.

A barrier to democracy

There’s evidence that strict voter ID rules in the USA disproportionately disadvantage already marginalised groups. Why? Unlike in mainland Europe where everyone has a mandatory national ID card, in the UK and USA the richer you are the more likely you have ID. 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.

Here in the UK, 3.5 million citizens do not have access to photo ID and 11 million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence – research from 2019 estimated that 1.3 million people in the UK do not even have a bank account. That makes mandatory voter ID – with no free provision – a barrier to many people exercising their right to vote.

Allowing the use of non-photographic 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 the government decide to pay for a free national electoral ID card, forcing people to bring it to exercise their right to vote will lead to inevitable mistakes and accidents.

Trust in our democratic system

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 issues 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.

Our well run elections

Elections are generally very well run in the UK. In 2019, there were only 34 allegations of people pretending to be someone else at the polling station – that’s 0.000058% of the over 58 million votes cast in all elections that year. There was only one conviction for personation and one caution – the rest either involved no further action or were locally resolved.

Adding a major barrier to democratic engagement off the back of so few proven cases would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut.


Why is impersonation so rare?

Requirements to show ID at polling stations would only stop people pretending to be somebody else in order to cast one fake vote. This is an incredibly rare crime because it is such a slow, clunky way to steal an election – and requires levels of organisation that would be easy to spot and prevent.

Firstly, without knowing the result, you can’t work out how many hundreds or thousands of votes you need to steal: if you steal too many it will be obvious, but if you don’t steal enough it makes no difference at all.

Secondly, you need to find enough real people on the electoral register who won’t be casting their ballot. If anyone whose vote has been stolen tries to vote, it instantly reveals the fraud and investigations begin.

Thirdly, you would need a team to go around all the polling stations to cast hundreds or thousands of votes without being spotted going in the same one twice.

Voting is not like picking up a parcel from the post office. Each individual vote only has any value when thousands of others are cast the same way – and it’s simply impractical, with a functioning rule of law and low levels of corruption, to steal enough votes to make a tangible difference.

What about Northern Ireland's scheme?

Faced with extremely high levels of documented in-person electoral fraud, Northern Ireland introduced mandatory ID in 1985 and a free Electoral ID Card in 2002.

At the 1983 General Election, 949 people arrived at polling stations in Northern Ireland only to be told a vote has already been cast in their name and police made 149 arrests for personation, resulting in 104 prosecutions.

Faced with military-style organisation of in-person fraud, investing millions in the ID scheme was a proportionate response.

But with only 28 allegations of fraud in 2017 across a population roughly 40 times larger, the same response would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut for the rest of the UK.


Don't you need ID to vote in Europe?

Nearly all European countries have mandatory ID card schemes with either free or low-cost cards. As the ID cards are mandatory all voters have ID cards, so no groups of voters are discriminated against.

In the UK we do not have mandatory ID cards and certain groups are far less likely to have ID than others. The elderly and those on low income are less likely to drive or go on holidays abroad for instance.

In the 2011 Census, 9.5 million people stated they did not hold a passport, 9 million do not have a driving licence and research estimates that in 2019 1.3 million lack even a bank account.

What happened at the trials?

The government trialled mandatory ID at the 2018 and 2019 English local elections. In both years, participating councils required voters to bring a form of identification, with each area testing different restrictions.

In total, across both sets of pilots, over 1,000 did not return to vote after being refused a ballot for not having voter ID. This scheme risks disenfranchising far more people than suspected wrongdoers.

Dodgy statistics

One of the key pieces of evidence used to support the need for the Government’s voter ID pilots was discredited by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) in the run-up to the 2018 vote. The government claimed that in-person voter fraud more than doubled between 2014 and 2016. While the statistic is technically accurate – a rise from 21 cases in 2014 to 44 in 2016 – the Cabinet Office failed to mention that the number of allegations then fell by more than a third in 2017, to 28.

Locations of trials

According to the 2011 census, the elderly, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and less well-off are least likely to hold forms of photo ID. Yet, none of the trial areas in 2018 had a significantly older, poorer or ethnically diverse population than the national average. The people most likely to be excluded by voter ID simply didn’t live in the areas voter ID was tested.

Stop the government’s expensive plans to make voting harder

According to the government's own numbers, forcing people to bring photo ID could cost up to £20,000,000 per election.

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Date published
Submission for

Response to House of Lords Select Committee on Electoral...

Campaign Regulation
Date published
Submission for

Position on the 2019 Voter ID Pilots

Voter ID