Voter ID: Undermining your Right to Vote

The government trialled banning people who don't have ID from voting in a number of local authorities in England in 2018 and 2019.

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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 or 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 is best tackled locally.

In 2019, there were only 34 allegations of personation fraud 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.

Personation fraud at the polling station accounted for just eight of the 266 allegations of fraud made in 2018, with no further action being taken for seven of these and one being locally resolved.

Of 44.4 million votes cast in 2017, there was one conviction resulting from the 28 allegations of in-person voter fraud – that’s 0.000063%.

Adding a major barrier to democratic engagement off the back of so few proven cases of fraud 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 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 (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 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. With no evidence of widespread fraud, even a handful of people not voting as they left their ID at home, or were denied a vote as a poll worker thought they didn’t match, would have a far bigger impact on election results than alleged fraud.

Tackling 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.

Why is impersonation fraud 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 2018 and 2019 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 dangerous plans to deny people the vote

Over 1000 people were denied a vote in the local council elections in 2018 and 2019. Their crime? Not possessing the right ID. The minister hailed these trials of mandatory voter ID a 'success'. The government has a very worrying definition of success.

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

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Position on the 2019 Voter ID Pilots

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