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Requiring ID From Voters Protects Us All

28/12/2016 15:48 GMT | Updated 28/12/2016 15:48 GMT

If a polling station worker suspects that a voter is not who they claim to be - say they literally know the voter Joe Bloggs, their next-door neighbour, and are certain that the person purporting to be him is not him - what can they do?

2016-12-28-1482931492-7553140-6a00d83451586c69e201b8d2255970970c600wi.jpg The law says they may ask two cunning Prescribed Questions ("precisely and calmly") of the suspect individual. The first is, "Are you the person registered to vote as Joe Bloggs?" The second is, "Have you already voted, here or elsewhere, in this election?"

If the target successfully answers both these questions, 'yes' to the first, 'no' to the second, they *have* to be allowed to vote. However dishonest or implausible they seem, if they give the right responses they can cast their ballot. The real Joe Bloggs, when he turns up later that evening after his Zumba class, will be bang out of luck.

(Technically there's also a power for poll clerks to ask for the voter's date of birth, but this crafty 'One Last Thing' killer gambit is only legal in Northern Ireland. Citizens in other parts of the United Kingdom are not expected to know the date of birth of the person they are claiming to be.)

British elections, then, are some of the least secure in the world. Even in emerging democracies the use of election ink paints those who have already voted a vivid purple which stops them from returning multiple times under multiple names.

Given our British laxity, and a number of recent scandals of fraud and personation, it is really no surprise that government will be piloting a scheme requiring voters to show ID when voting. The acceptable ID will include passports and driving licenses, but also less formal items such as bank cards and gas bills. There will also be a free, voluntary 'election ID card' available to those who really don't have anything else.

Voter ID requirements are always controversial. In the USA they often exhibit traits of racial bias. The poor and socially excluded often lack acceptable documentation. People can end up disenfranchised.

Yet the main argument against such laws - that they represent a burden on the right to vote, an extra step bound to put off some hurried or disinterested citizens - is in fact an argument in their favour.

The phrase 'the right to vote' is actually a shorthand. The physical act of voting, on its own, is not enough. If I exercises my right to vote but then a corrupt Returning Officer sets fire to the ballot box, nobody could sensibly argue that I have not been wronged ("But nobody stopped him voting!").

And in those circumstances, I'm not the only victim: malpractice interferes with everyone's right to vote, because the 'right to vote' is actually a right to participate in a fair and democratic poll with an outcome which correctly reflects the will of the electorate. Or, as the European Convention on Human Rights ***puts it***, the right to "free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature".

So unless there are at least some checks on who has access to the ballot box, the integrity of the election and the fulfilment of the right are fatally compromised.

Not only may ballot security procedures not be an unreasonable burden on the right to vote, they may be essential to its exercise. If our polls were held by leaving a cardboard box in the town square, labelled, "Put your votes in here," voting would be easy-peasy and blissfully unburdened, but also valueless and a failure so far as democracy goes.

Getting the balance between security and openness is not always easy. But an American case may help us find the line which divided the acceptable from the unacceptable. In Crawford, the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana voter ID law which required citizens to present one of a number of acceptable documents, and, failing that, allowed them to cast a provisional ballot which would be counted three days later if, by then, they popped into a local council office and swore an oath that they were who they claimed to be. The right to vote, Justice Stevens held, was not impaired.

Who knows how our new British experiment will turn out. But a democracy is only democratic if voting is restricted to those entitled to vote. Measures aimed at ensuring that are, in principle, to be applauded.