The government’s case for mandatory voter ID has taken another big hit

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 26th May 2020

Recently-published analysis has dealt another blow to the government’s case for mandatory voter ID.

The government wants to force all voters to ‘show their papers’ at the polling station. But an assessment by the Electoral Commission of electoral offences in the UK shows the minuscule state of ‘personation’ fraud – the type that voter ID is meant to prevent.

The research – published at the end of March – shows there was just one conviction for personation fraud, out of millions of votes cast in the UK last year. It raises real questions about ministers’ crumbling case for the proposals.

The Electoral Commission note:

“More than half of all reported cases [of fraud in 2019] were about campaigning offences. Most of these were campaigners not including details about the printer, promoter or publisher on election material (an ‘imprint’), or someone making false statements about the personal character or conduct of a candidate…

“The UK has low levels of proven electoral fraud. There was no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud in 2019.”


There are plenty of protections against personation in the UK: from trained electoral staff to police monitoring, to the fact that people have to provide a name and address when they present at a polling station.

The registration system itself is an added layer of protection: people have to prove their identity when they sign up to vote. But we also have paper voting, in-person – which makes it much harder to conduct large-scale manipulation.

There are also mechanisms for noting when more than one person tries to vote under the same name – a provisional ‘tendered’ ballot is issued, and the problem is investigated. As you’d imagine, you’d be pretty angry if you got to the polling station and found someone had tried to vote under your name. The cases of this happening are minuscule.

The real threats

Those are just a few reasons why voting offences made up just 24% of alleged electoral offences last year – with campaign rule-breaking, largely by party candidates, forming the majority: 54%.

So if it is party campaigners responsible for most rule-breaking, why is the government going after the minnows – ordinary voters?

There are real threats to democratic integrity in the UK: Britain’s electoral laws haven’t been updated since the advent of the social media giants and online campaigning – meaning elections are vulnerable to abuse.

Yet the dangers are not from people going from one polling station to another in disguise, but from unscrupulous actors able to sway the debate online through dark ads, dodgy donations and disinformation.

Hardest hit

As the ERS has long highlighted, the ‘show your papers’ policy ministers hope to implement is a real threat to people’s hard-earned democratic rights.

An Electoral Commission report in 2016 pointed out that 3.5 million citizens in the UK do not have access to photo ID, and 11 million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence – the kind of ID expected to be required under any new legislation. That means photo ID would put up a real barrier to millions of people.

There’s also big differences by demographic. Around 40% of people identifying as mixed race and 48% of those identifying as Black do not hold a full driving licence.

ID trials

While ministers have promised a free identification card from local councils on request, this simply represents another barrier to voting that will put many off – with large variations likely in terms of how easy the cards are to acquire.

Some forms of free ID were made available in trials testing this policy last May. But figures show that almost no one got one. That was unsurprising given that, in many cases, a would-be voter had to trek to a council office (when it was open) before polling day, fill in forms and get someone of “high standing” in your area to sign it.

More than 700 people were denied a vote for not having ID in pilots conducted in May’s local elections – across just 10 council areas, according to official figures. We could see voters excluded on an industrial scale if mandatory photo ID were rolled out nationally.

‘Secure and robust’

Last month Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith told a House of Lords committee: “Our elections are secure and are robust”

At a polling station level, that’s true. So why on earth are the government pushing ahead with plans to force all voters to bring ID – potentially disenfranchising thousands of people?

The government has pledged to plough on with the ‘show your papers’ scheme. Make no mistake – they would put all of our democratic rights at risk.

Ministers should focus on combating the real threats to our democracy, rather than putting up barriers for all of us.

Read the Electoral Commission data here. And you can read the ERS’ briefing on the 2019 voter ID trials in the local elections here.

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