Local elections: How voter ID trial could undermine the right to vote

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 30th April 2019

Here’s something you might not know about Thursday’s local elections: hundreds of thousands of potential voters are being told that unless they bring ID with them, they’ll be turned away.

If rolled out nationally – as the government wants – this represents a real threat to democratic engagement.

As part of a Cabinet Office trial, people in 10 council areas will be forced to present personal identification before casting their ballot at the polling station in: Braintree, Broxtowe, Craven, Derby, Mid-Sussex, North Kesteven, North West Leicestershire, Pendle, Watford, and Woking council areas.

Two other councils originally signed up to the scheme but later dropped out – amid valid fears about resources and voters being excluded. Councils are already stretched to the limit: the last thing many want is to become glorified bouncers.

Ribble Valley council said the process would be ‘too resource intensive’ and East Staffordshire council said it was ‘concerned about the time allowed for us to communicate with the electorate what valid forms of ID would be permitted.’

The government already piloted mandatory ID at the 2018 English local elections. In Gosport, Swindon, Woking, Watford and Bromley, voters were required for the first time to bring a form of identification. Around 350 people were turned away and didn’t come back to vote, meaning that they were effectively denied a say.

While it looks like councils have spent a lot raising awareness this year, the root problem remains: the policy could disenfranchise large numbers of voters if rolled out across the country.

A new briefing we’ve just published highlights figures from the Electoral Commission showing that, of the 266 cases investigated by police relating to the 2018 local and mayoral elections and local by-elections, the majority (140) were campaigning offences and just one in five (57) related to complaints made about the voting process itself. In other words, not solvable with mandatory voter ID.

Personation fraud at the polling station – the crime of pretending to be someone else at the ballot box, which is what the government’s voter ID pilots claim to address – accounted for just eight of the 266 allegations made in 2018. Yes, you read that right: eight. (No further action was taken for seven of these allegations and one was locally resolved).

But aside from being a distraction, the government’s own estimates show that rolling out voter ID nationally could cost up to £20m per General Election. That equates to £700,000 per allegation of ‘personation’ in the General Election year of 2017.

Most electoral offences are committed by parties rather than voters. Yet it is innocent voters who lose out when the government locks ordinary people out of democracy – and millions risk being excluded from our politics because of these plans.

Let’s not forget that research by the Electoral Commission shows that around 3.5 million citizens (7.5% of the electorate) do not have access to any photo ID. And if voter identification requirements were restricted to passports or driving licenses, around million citizens (24% of the electorate) could potentially be disenfranchised.

So rather than spending up to £20m per election on making it harder for millions to vote, we should be encouraging participation and engagement.

We think it’s time the government scrapped its ‘show your papers’ policy – and instead invested in improving democratic engagement and modernising Britain’s dangerously outdated campaign rules instead.

We’re not alone either: prior to the 2018 pilots, a major coalition of over 40 leading civil society groups, charities and academics joined the ERS in opposing mandatory ID plans – including Age UK, Stonewall, Liberty, The Salvation Army, Migrants’ Rights Network, the British Youth Council and the Race Equality Foundation.

Forcing all voters to show their papers at the polling station is a solution looking for a problem. If the government is minded to, there are plenty of other pressing democratic problems to sort out.

Read the ERS’ new briefing on the voter ID trials

Sign the ERS’ petition against the government’s undemocratic voter ID plans

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