With the exception of Northern Ireland, citizens voting in UK elections don’t usually need to verify that they are who they say they are. But in last month’s local elections, five areas in England piloted identity checks at polling stations.
The trial followed a 2016 government-sponsored review of electoral fraud which recommended ID checks to prevent vote stealing. Voters in Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking were advised to bring a passport or driving licence to the polling station on May 3rd.
ID voting in practice
While most voters in the pilot areas had the correct documents, 340 did not and were not allowed to vote. A further 688 people were initially turned away, but later returned with the correct ID documents.
Although the local authorities in the pilot areas ran awareness campaigns to highlight the changes, voters were surprised to find they needed ID to vote. One Bromley resident who was turned away at the polls told The Independent he was shocked to be denied his vote because he did not have a bank card or passport. As a consequence, he decided not to return to the polling station with the correct ID:
"I'm choosing not to vote, and I've never done that before. I think people who have problems with their ID will certainly be disenfranchised, even if they've lived here for many years.
In Woking, Labour councillor Tahir Aziz said a man was turned away from voting because his form of ID – a Surrey County Council document with his picture on it – was not accepted.
A “great success” or a “mistaken policy”?
After the polls closed, the impact of the ID trials was assessed. Ray Morgan, the Returning Officer at Woking Borough Council, claimed the pilot was a great success, with 99.73% of voters providing the correct identification documents:
“Following our recent experiences in the polling stations on May 3, I see no reason why bringing ID to vote cannot be embedded in our democratic process and have already expressed my desire to the Cabinet Office that Woking continues to participate in any future trials.”
However, Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement argued that the voter ID policy was misguided:
“The Electoral Commission found that out of nearly 45 million votes cast in the local and General Election in 2017, there were only 28 cases of alleged voter fraud. That’s less than 0.00007% or one case for every 1.6 million votes cast. And out of those 28 cases, there was only one conviction. But instead of listening to the experts and the vast evidence base, the Government decided to implement a mistaken policy with the full knowledge that voters could be disenfranchised. The fact that voters were denied their right to vote is proof that voter ID has no place in our democracy.”
ID for all?
Despite these criticisms, the UK Government is pleased with the trials, and seems intent on making voter ID a requirement for all UK elections:
“The success of the voter ID pilots proves that this is a reasonable and proportionate measure to take and voters were fully aware of the changes on polling day. We will evaluate the pilots before announcing the next steps in delivering voter ID nationally."
Around 11 million people in the UK – a quarter of the electorate – are believed to own neither a passport nor a driving licence. If voter ID becomes a more widespread requirement, it could be a significant barrier to many wishing to exercise their democratic right. The Electoral Reform Society has gone further, suggesting that the ID trials appear to be a “calculated effort by the Government to make voting harder for some citizens.”
Earlier this month, senior barristers at a leading law firm in London claimed that ministers had acted beyond the scope of the law in ordering the ID trials at the May elections. The barristers said that a section of the Representation of the People Act 2000 provides for changes to voting methods, but these should make voting easier: “Schemes that restrict or discourage voting, or that inhibit voters, are not within the meaning of the section.”
The Cabinet Office disagrees with this view, and further trials will take place next year. It looks like ID voting is here to stay.