Democracy Denied: Voices of voters caught out by voter ID at the 2024 local elections

Mike Wright, Head of Communications

Posted on the 16th May 2024

The recent local and mayoral elections were the first time that millions of voters experienced voter ID rules for the first time. Whilst we won’t get official stats from the Electoral Commission on how many people were turned away for some months yet, the ERS has already heard from dozens of voters who were caught out by rules and effectively barred from casting a vote.

On polling day, news that Boris Johnson, the prime minister who brought voter ID in, was turned away for not having acceptable ID, caused much amusement on social media. Yet, the ex-PM was able to return with his ID shortly after and cast his vote unhindered. That was not the case from many others who were either caught out the confusing rules around what ID accepted or just did not have the ID required.

They told us that voter ID would be just like picking up a parcel. Then turned people away who believed them. Here are some of their experiences.

Caught out by confusing rules:

Many people were caught out by the narrow and often arbitrary types of ID that the government have deemed acceptable. An example of this is that Oyster Cards are not accepted ID for the under 60s but are for the over 60s.

The case of Adam Driver, a decorated army veteran who was turned away after trying to use his veterans’ ID, understandably garnered media attention on polling day. But many others, including police officers and health workers were again caught out by the narrow range of ID accepted. One police officer told us: “I went to vote on my way home from work. I only had my Police Warrant card. It was refused. They told me to go home and come back with government issued ID! I didn’t. They lost my vote.”

We also heard from an NHS cleaner who was unable to use their NHS ID card to cast their vote. One couple wrote in to tell us that they were left in the ridiculous situation where one of them was able to vote using their bus pass but the other denied with their railway card.

Voters put off from even trying to cast their vote:

Others didn’t even make it as far as the polling station. We heard from a number of people who were unable to cast their vote because their ID was in the course of being renewed or replaced or they were unsure ID they had would be accepted didn’t want to endure the embarrassment of being turned away.

One person wrote in to say they were left in a situation where they were unsure if their old passport would be accepted. They said: “I have no valid passport, no photo driving licence, no bus pass and no other photo ID. I have a 20-year-old passport, but did not want the embarrassment of being turned away when trying to vote because of my old passport being unacceptable to some official. So I did not try and vote.” 

The voter ID rules also caused stressful situations for voters too. One told us: “I lost my passport and couldn’t afford a replacement as low income and cost of living crisis. I also have autism and I applied for a voter ID card well in advance but couldn’t find it [on polling day] despite looking for hours. As it was just a piece of paper. I think my housemate threw it away. However, circumstance aside, the ID requirement hugely disadvantages people on the neurodiverse spectrum.”

Something that Tom Hunt MP, who lost his ID, would agree with.

Polling staff having to act ‘like border police’

Foreign nationals and dual citizens also experienced trouble when trying to use accepted ID issued by other countries, such a ID cards from states in the European Economic Area (EEA).

One Hungarian national, who is also a British citizen, said their biometric EEA ID card was initially not accepted by polling staff. They said: “I was told I can’t use it. They phoned someone and showed me their handbook pointing at it saying it should look like this. What they were in fact pointing at was an immigration doc, not an EEA ID.”

Another person reported their experience trying to use a German driver’s licence. They said: “I, a university lecturer, took my 1983 German driver’s licence. This is on the list that came through my door: driver’s licence issued by an EEC state.

“However, the polling station operated a secondary list with images, and the images did not include my 1983 licence, only more recent EEC licences. Luckily, I had brought back-up in the form of a passport. The polling volunteers were apologetic and friendly; it was clear that they did not like having to act like border police.”

Awkward situations at polling stations

The confusing voter ID rules also left voters facing awkward and uncomfortable situations at the polling station. One woman told us she uses her maiden name professionally and thus has no ID with her registered surname on. She said she was only able to vote after producing a marriage certificate to poll workers.

However, another woman in a similar situation said it put her off attempting to vote and having explaining her situation to poll workers. She added: I am worried that women in their 20s-40s will be disproportionately affected for similar reasons, and we don’t have things like free travel passes.”

One immunosuppressed voter also told us they were only able to vote after they agreed to remove their face mask to be identified, despite them being advised medically to take extra precautions in indoor situations.

Polling staff confusion

As well as causing difficultly for voters, it is clear the ID rules are also placing polling works in confusing situations. One voter said they faced doubt over whether they could vote as they had grown a beard since the time of the picture in their ID. They said: “[The] person at the polling station looked at my passport, said ‘I’m going to have to query this, you don’t have a beard on the photo’. I said: ‘So are you going to stop me voting because I have a beard?’. She blustered about how she had been told to check, but I ignored her and went to the person doing the register.”

Another grandparent told us that she had gone to vote with her granddaughter, who was initially told her provisional driver’s licence was not valid. They said: “I [the grandparent] challenged this and told her that I had checked what valid ID was acceptable and a provisional driving licence was acceptable.

“Her colleague also said she thought it was acceptable. They looked in the handbook and it was acceptable. My granddaughter was able to vote. However, what if I hadn’t challenged the initial decision? How many other potential voters have been told that their ID is not valid when in fact it is valid.”

Another parent wrote in as her 18 year old son was turned away from casting his first vote. His Citizen Card, a valid piece of ID that bears the PASS hologram was wrongly rejected by poll workers.

Voter Authority Certificates

People without a valid form of ID can apply for a Voter Authority Certificate (VAC) from their local council, which is a piece of paper they can then take to the polling station as proof of ID.

However, from the reports we had from voters, it seems many were unaware that they could get a VAC, became aware after the deadline to apply for one, or had difficulty getting their application approved. One voter said “It’s not that my wife couldn’t vote, but we arrived at our polling station about 5:15pm. The staff commented that hers was the first Voter Authority Certificate they had seen on the day. This indicates a lack of take up of this council alternative ID. There was a delay in getting her VAC as her maiden name is still shown with her NI number and married name on the electoral roll.”

From the moment voter ID was proposed, the ERS warned that it was an unnecessary policy that would prevent people from voting and affect some groups more disproportionately than others. We know from Electoral Commission figures that 14,000 people have already been turned away from voting at last year’s local elections. What we have seen again is scores of people being caught out by confusing and often arbitrary ID rules – far more than have ever been accused of any sort of fraud.

Voting is a fundamental democratic right, and no one should be prevented from casting a vote they are entitled to. It is clear that this disproportionate and damaging policy should scrapped, or at the very least the forms of acceptable voter ID need to be vastly expanded so everyone can cast their vote unimpeded.

One voter turned away is one too many.

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