THE BLOG

Voter ID Is A Solution In Search Of A Problem - The Conservatives Should Think Again

18/05/2017 16:11 BST | Updated 18/05/2017 16:12 BST
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

If ever the phrase 'sledgehammer to crack a nut' was apt, it's the idea that you should be forced to bring ID to the polling station when you vote.

Today the Conservatives announced plans to introduce mandatory voter ID for elections across the UK - ostensibly to reduce alleged voter fraud.

Yet here are the facts. There were 481 allegations of electoral fraud in the UK in 2015. In two thirds (312) no further action was taken. 269 of the cases were about the campaign - mostly candidates not putting their 'promoted by' imprints on election materials (yes, really).

Just 123 were about alleged voting fraud. And of those, only 26 of those were about 'personation' (pretending to be someone else) at a polling station - what voter ID is meant to prevent.

As of the end of 2015, only one allegation had resulted in conviction - and only a handful warranted investigation.

So what is the problem this policy is trying to solve?

It's a problem in search of a solution: and an idea that poses big issues for our democracy.

Firstly, there's the risk it will make our democracy even more unequal. There's clear evidence that strict voter ID rules in some US states disproportionately disadvantages ethnic minority voters and other already-marginalised groups.

And where they aren't strict - as in Sir Eric Pickles' proposals last year - they offer the worst of both worlds: making it harder for most people to vote while not preventing those who really are trying to defraud the system from doing so. i.e. If you could forge a bill, you could steal a vote. But the honest person who can't find a bill in the first place can't.

The experience of photographic electoral ID in Northern Ireland is more positive. But there's a key difference: there, ID is provided for free.

The Pickles review proposals are instead a watered-down form which wouldn't necessarily reduce fraud. So allowing the use of non-photographic (and perhaps easily-forgeable) ID would mean the change could actually do more harm than good.

The introduction of voter ID is something that has to be thought about very carefully - because there's a substantial risk that this could raise barriers to participation and put people off voting.

The old phrase 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' is pertinent here. The UK has an international reputation for running elections with integrity and openness. It would be wrong to risk throwing that reputation away by making it harder for people to vote, without thinking about the consequences or how to improve our democracy and turnout alongside it.

That's not to say we shouldn't do anything. In fact, the opposite: there are other things that can be done to limit potential fraud without damaging participation. Clearer guidance and comprehensive training of election staff and Returning Officers are changes everyone can get behind, while other suggestions to introduce stronger powers against voter intimidation and to make it easier to launch 'election petitions' to report fraud are worth discussing.

But as things stands - there is simply not enough evidence of voter fraud in the UK to justify a dramatic change to Britain's democratic traditions. 26 unproven allegations should not be used to throw away the openness our political system offers.

Before making overbearing and counterproductive changes that put millions of already-unrepresented people off voting, let's look at more positive reforms.

Locking voters out should never be done lightly. It's time to put down that sledgehammer...

Katie Ghose is Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society