Why the government’s mandatory voter ID plans are a terrible idea

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 6th March 2018

The Electoral Commission has launched a new campaign against electoral fraud – a laudable effort to limit this type of crime.

But it also brings under the spotlight the upcoming trials of mandatory voter ID in May, happening in a smattering of councils.

This may not be a proportional answer to the problem. In fact, it could even make matters worse.

The trials seek to deal with the specific issue of ‘personation’. This is where someone votes at a polling station pretending to be someone else.

Impersonation fraud is incredibly rare

Indeed, the Electoral Commission’s data shows that only one conviction for it was made in the whole of 2017: out of nearly 45 million votes cast.

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 – partly 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, no one can 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 potential fraud and investigations begin. We have solid legal election processes in place to deal with this.

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. That’s just one reason among many why it is so rare.

So mandatory voter ID can only (potentially) limit one, very rare type of fraud.

Who holds ID is uneven in the UK

But there is an additional issue. Unlike many European states, not everyone is issued with an ID card in the UK. This creates inequalities – one likely to be disproportionately higher for those with higher levels of deprivation.

As the Electoral Commission argues, people need to have faith in the voting system, but the problem with voting ID is that it could exclude many legitimate votes.

According to government figures, around one in 10 of us doesn’t have a passport or driving licence. In comparison to an evidently tiny amount of fraud then, there is a far greater potential risk to democracy if so many are kept from the polls.

Alternative solutions – such as allowing the use of utility bills – are also problematic, given they lack photo identification, are much easier to make fraudulent copies off and are not accessible to those who do not pay their own bills, such as the very young and some renters.

Battling electoral fraud is important, but it is vital that we do not use out of proportion responses which risk blocking large number of legitimate votes from being cast.

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