25 Aug Briefing: Voter ID Position Paper
by Adam Lloyd
Voice4Change England is disappointed that the government would begin the parliamentary session by including, in the humble address, plans to require voters to show an approved form of photographic ID at a polling station in a UK parliamentary election in Great Britain and local election in England. We are deeply concerned with the democratic deficit that would be caused by this proposed new legislation. It has called into question the integrity of the electoral process but there is no evidence to support the government’s claims of widespread electoral fraud. The government should instead endeavour to look to extend enfranchisement not put up more barriers for people to exercise their suffrage.
- A pilot project was launched by the former Minister for the Constitution, Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP in September 2017 after reported cases of alleged electoral fraud through voter personation which more than doubled between 2014 and 2016. He said reports of fraud “undermine democracy and weaken the United Kingdom’s strong tradition of holding free and fair elections.”
- These steps towards a “Show me your papers” approach stemmed from the 2015 Sir Eric Pickles review in the wake of the Tower Hamlets scandal where mayor Lutfur Rahman had been banned from office after being found guilty of a litany of corrupt electoral practices. There is also a precedent of required ID in the devolved nations with it being standard practice in Northern Ireland since 1985 which has, according to the government, dramatically reduced ‘voter personation’ - also known as vote stealing - where one person pretends to be someone else in order to use their vote.
- In the Queen’s Speech on 14 October 2019, the Government announced its intention to introduce a requirement for voters to produce photographic ID at the polling station. The Government states that requiring voters to show some form of ID will reduce the risk of voter fraud and improve the integrity of the electoral process. The government is expected to introduce a bill in the spring 2021 to make photo ID mandatory from 2023 for all UK-wide and English elections.
Is there electoral fraud in the UK?
- The House of Commons Library cited research from the Electoral Commission and the following chart depicts the number of cases of electoral fraud reported to the police each year since 2010. In the majority of these cases, no further action was taken because there was insufficient evidence.
- The majority of cases concerned campaign offences (49% of all reported cases in 2017 and 48% in 2018), for example where a party does not include details about the publisher on election material. This was followed by voting offences (31% of all cases in 2017 and 21% in 2018).
- In 2017, one person was convicted for the crime of personation at the polling station. Eight police cautions were given in relation to other offences. In 2018, there were no convictions or cautions for personation. One person was convicted and two accepted a caution for electoral offences other than personation.
- There is also considerable currency given to the vulnerability posed to the integrity of the electoral system by postal voting. However, high profile convictions such as the 2005 Birmingham case are simply not representative. Since 1998, Electoral Commission records show there have been only nine convictions for postal vote fraud, a rate of less than one every two years. More than half of all reported cases were about campaigning offences.
Most of these were:
- campaigners not including details about the printer, promotor or publisher on election material - an ‘imprint’.
- someone making false statements about the personal character or conduct of a candidate.
When academics have studied electoral fraud in other established democracies, where it is also claimed to be common, they tend to conclude that it is in actual fact very rare. Accusations of electoral fraud, however, are often thought to be very common because they are often used to made by politicians seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the winner or seeking to make the case for more restrictive electoral laws from which they might gain partisan advantage.
Were the Pilot Trials successful?
- Compared to allegations and verified cases of personation, the number of people turned away in both pilot years are material. The 2018 voter ID pilots saw more than 1,000 voters being turned away for not having the correct form of ID – of these, around 350 voters did not return to vote. In 2019, around 2,000 people were initially refused a ballot paper, of which roughly 750 did not return with ID and did not therefore take part in the election. In total, across both sets of pilots, over 1,000 voters did not return to vote after being refused a ballot for not having ID.
- One of the key pieces of evidence used to support the need for the Government’s voter ID pilots was discredited by the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) in the run-up to the 2018 vote. The government claimed that in-person voter fraud more than doubled between 2014 and 2016. While the statistic is technically accurate – a rise from 21 cases in 2014 to 44 in 2016 – the Cabinet Office failed to mention that the number of allegations then fell by more than a third in 2017 to 28 allegations.
- It was discovered that the MPs may have been misled over there being evidence showing there is no impact on any particular demographic group. The Electoral Commission has since admitted it in fact had no way of measuring the effect of voter ID on minority ethnic communities’ votes.
Access to photographic ID
- Possession of ID is not universal: Research by the Electoral Commission shows that around 3.5 million citizens (7.5% of the electorate) do not have access to photo ID. If voter identification requirements were restricted to passports or driving licenses, around 11 million citizens (24% of the electorate) could potentially be disenfranchised.
- Marginalised groups are less likely to have ID; Women, those living in urban areas, the under 20s and over 65s were less likely to hold a driving license. Since the 1990s, possession of a driving license has dropped by 40 percent among under 20s – making it a poor basis for a voter ID policy. A recent survey by the Department for Transport found that only 52 percent of the Black population hold a driving licence, compared with 76% of the White population.
- Analysis by Professor Chris Hanretty and Financial Times journalist John Burn-Murdoch suggests that there is a strong association between the possession of a driving licence and voting patterns: those without a driving license were more likely to report voting Labour (57%) than Conservative (27%) at the 2017 General Election.
- Halima Begum, the director of the Runnymede Trust, said: “People from black and minority ethnic groups are less likely to be registered to vote, vote and be elected. Many voters do not have photo ID, and that ownership of ID can differ by socioeconomic groups, with citizens from BAME communities at a particular potential disadvantage. The current proposals suggest a negative disposition towards voters at a time when trust in politicians and the democratic process is quite low.”
- Three major US Civil Rights Groups: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and Commons Cause said that “while they did not campaign directly in the UK it was a common principle that such [Voter ID] laws, without evidence of widespread election fraud, had a harmful impact.”
- Cat Smith MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs, said the government “should heed the warnings of these respected civil rights groups, who have seen first-hand the undemocratic and discriminatory impact of mandating voter ID at elections”.
- The Voter ID law is also opposed by the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens.
- The Cabinet Office said last month these plans form part of the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge “to prevent potential voter fraud in our electoral system. This will further strengthen the integrity of UK elections and will include ID checks at the polling station and rules that prevent abuse of postal and proxy votes” Claims that the UK Electoral system is vulnerable to widespread electoral fraud due to personation is, to put simply, just not supported by the evidence. Year on year, the Electoral Commission reports a number of cases which is immaterial. Though these cases in isolation are concerning, the existing legal framework enables the commission to resolve them effectively e.g. fines (max of £20,000)
- There are concerns around the profligacy of the introduction of mandatory ID at a cost of up to £20m per election – this is at a time when the government’s fiscal priorities should be focused on COVID recovery. Furthermore, a BMG poll, voter ID ranked second to last (out of 12) in terms of people’s priorities for democracy. Therefore, it would be fair to deduce from the British public’s attitudes that they would prefer to see these resources allocated to cash-stricken and over stretched frontline services.
- In a vibrant civil society, it is incumbent on the government to endeavour to increase political participation by expanding voters rights. The US case rightly highlights the introduction of reduced voter participation and suggested that this was disproportionately high amongst racial and ethnic minority groups. Attempting to impose more barriers to entry will only cause a groundswell of political apathy and it will serve to disenfranchise those who look to exercise their suffrage but will now not have the means to do so. This in conjunction with the upcoming 2023 boundary review translates into a partisan dilution of democracy. Conversely, the government should instead look to address millions left of the electoral register, anachronistic campaign laws and look to empower the Electoral Commission with the investigatory powers of the Information Commissioner’s office to tackle the new battleground of digital campaigning.
- In the recent Queens speech, Woking was emphasised as a success story (it piloted photographic ID in both 2018 and 2019), and 99.9% of people who attended a polling station in 2019 were able to show the right photographic ID and were issued with a ballot paper. The White population in Woking is 83.6% White - it would be interesting to see if these results would be replicated in a place like Willesden Green where the population is 52.7% BAME. When there could be, and like there has been in the US, an undemocratic and discriminatory impact of mandating voter ID at elections, it is disappointing that it seems the locations of these pilot studies were a missed opportunity to assuage these concerns.
- The bigger story is that 19 million citizens are still not on the Parliamentary electoral register, and that the government’s efforts should be directed towards extending suffrage to those who are not presently able to cast a ballot. We should be therefore considering provisions like election-day registration, automatic voter registration, early in-person voting and weekend elections. Furthermore, there should be a concerted push to diversify the electoral register with only one in four black and Asian people not registered to vote. The Electoral Commission’s data says that 25 per cent of black voters in Great Britain are not registered. It also says that 24 per cent of Asian voters and almost a third (31 per cent) of eligible people with mixed ethnicity are not yet registered, compared to a 17 per cent average across the population.
 James, T., 2012. Elite statecraft and election administration. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.