The government have pledged to bring in voter ID in a number of areas across the UK in 2018, with voters forced to bring identification to the ballot box.
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.
Thankfully electoral fraud is very rare in the UK. Where voter fraud has occurred, it has been isolated, and therefore is best tackled locally.
51.4 million votes were cast in 2015. 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.
There’s evidence that strict voter ID rules in the US 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. 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 you have ID, forcing people to bring it to exercise their right to vote will lead to inevitable mistakes and accidents. Make no mistake – errors in checking voter ID 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.
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 to steal enough votes to make a tangible difference.