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 – for some

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 a barrier to many people exercising their right to vote.

It’s not clear how non-photographic utility bills would tackling any of the alleged problems.

Trials of free electoral ID documents involved prospective voters having to take time off work and caring responsibilities to travel to council offices to request them. Those that can most easily take time off work to do this are usually the most likely to already have ID. This expensive plan simply makes it harder for some people to vote.

An expensive distraction

It’s not just those without ID that will have to pay up, either buying ID cards or giving up paid work to apply for ID documents at a distant town hall. The government’s own figures suggest the scheme will cost an extra £20,000,000 per general election.

We’ll all pay – and for what? Making it slower to vote – as poll workers try to match passports with ten-year-old photos to their owners and driving licences that are still in voter’s maiden names. Should local council workers be able to turn people away from polling stations due to bureaucratic errors?

UK elections are safe and secure

We need to be combatting the huge challenges that undermine our democracy, not putting up paywalls around polling stations.

Nine million people are missing from the electoral roll, there are glaring loopholes in our lobbying laws and online political adverts still don’t have to say who paid for them. 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 impersonation at the polling station, out of over 58 million votes cast. 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