The government will be trialling making ID mandatory at polling stations this May. Voters in Bromley, Woking and Gosport will have to show officials their papers before being permitted to exercise their right to vote. In Watford and Swindon voters will have to bring their polling cards with them.
But what is the problem these trials seek to solve?
The frequent claims of voter fraud don’t stack up: if you turned up to vote and someone had already voted in your name, wouldn’t you complain? Even a verbal complaint would trigger the Electoral Returning Officer to act.
Yet impersonation fraud – the crime of pretending to be someone else at the ballot box – is incredibly rare. In fact, there was only one conviction for it in the whole of 2017: out of nearly 45 million votes. And in 2017 there were only 28 allegations of this ‘personation’.
This lack of a problem hasn’t stopped people pitching voter ID as the ‘catch all’ solution. The problem is, it’s often suggested as a solution for problems it wouldn’t solve.
Charles Moore wrote in support of ID: “In the EU referendum in 2016, I illustrated [the voter fraud] problem by ‘voting’ in two places, once casting a real vote and in the other spoiling my ballot to expose how easy fraud was. Rather than acting on the problem, the Electoral Commission condemned me.”
Mr Moore has a second home and is legally registered in two places. While multiple homeowners willing to dash between polling stations on election day is a minor problem, it is not a problem mandatory ID will solve. Mr Moore would simply present his ID at each location.
It’s even unclear if the one conviction would have been stopped by mandatory voter ID. The fraudster voted twice in the same constituency, by registering twice at his home address with a minor variation of his name. Presumably, poll workers won’t be stopping everyone who has their shortened name on the register and their full name on their ID.
In the past, the ‘head of the household’ could just say voters were resident at their address, without necessarily providing evidence. Thankfully, this sort of fraud is much harder to do since the Government extended Individual Electoral Registration. Everyone now has to register individually and explain why if they can’t provide a National Insurance number.
You’d think mandatory ID would at least stop the type of fraud it claims to prevent. But the experience from Northern Ireland (where they have mandatory ID) shows how dedicated fraudsters can get around the system.
In Foyle, one Patrick Doherty had a quick look in the phone book to find the addresses of the other two Patrick Dohertys in his constituency – before popping along and voting on their behalf, ID in hand. Luckily, the police had a limited number of doors to knock on to find their man.
But imagine the power a John Smith might have – not least when everyone’s guard is down because they think the system is beyond reproach.
The MP Greg Hands raised the threat of postal vote fraud and the corruption in Tower Hamlets as a reason for mandatory ID, even though showing ID at the polling station has no connection with the security of postal votes. The corrupt practices that led to the downfall of Tower Hamlet’s disgraced former Mayor Lutfar Rahman included postal vote fraud, undue spiritual influence, bribery, making false statements against another candidate and treating (providing food, drink or entertainment with corrupt intent). None of which involved pretending to be someone else at the ballot box.
In fact, the problems were solved by our strong and well-respected judicial system and existing laws.
Former Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore said: “For people to have confidence in our democratic processes we need to ensure that our elections are safeguarded against any threat or perception of electoral fraud.”
But evidence shows that bringing in mandatory ID makes little difference to perceptions of fraud. Citizens of US states with strict ID laws don’t feel better about their elections than people in more relaxed states.
We can make our voting system more secure by educating voters, and by properly funding electoral officers. Instead, we face a draconian policy ‘solution’ in search of a problem.