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.
Out of 44.6 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 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 the USA disproportionately disadvantage already marginalised groups. Why? Unlike in mainland Europe where everyone has a 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.
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. 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 would have a far bigger impact on election results than 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.