THE BLOG
01/05/2018 11:35 BST | Updated 01/05/2018 11:35 BST

How Mandatory Voter ID Risks Locking Out Legitimate Voters

These trials are ill-thought-out, and raise serious concerns for our democracy

Representative democracies rely on people being able to participate in free and fair elections.

That is why each time an election comes around the Electoral Reform Society and likeminded campaigners encourage as many people as possible to register to vote and to make an informed decision at the ballot box.

We have done this ahead of the local elections taking place on Thursday. A large turnout is good for everyone, including the successful candidates who have a stronger mandate upon which to make decisions.

But this time around, in some parts of the country, an additional barrier has been put in place which risks locking out legitimate voters: mandatory voter ID.

This is being trialled in Bromley, Watford, Woking, Swindon and Gosport – meaning anyone wishing to vote will have to first prove they are who they say they are by providing a particular document (for a full list of requirements in each area see here.)

The evidence from abroad of where mandatory ID has been introduced makes for grim reading for anyone who supports a strong democracy.

Our in-depth analysis of the government’s voter ID trials, states:

“A number of studies have found that the introduction of voter ID requirements has reduced voter participation and several studies suggest that this is disproportionately high amongst racial and ethnic minority groups. The impact has also been shown to disproportionately affect those with lower educational qualifications and lower income populations.

“When voter identification was introduced in Canada for federal elections, the independent body responsible for conducting elections, Elections Canada, found that (in the seven by-elections held after the new rules were introduced) 4% of voters said they could not vote because they didn’t have the right ID. A further 4% turned up without the right ID.”

The governments’s line on why they’re backing mandatory ID trials is “to tackle electoral fraud” – but our report concludes the evidence base is severely lacking.

Analysis by the Electoral Commission of votes conducted in 2017 revealed there were just 28 allegations of ‘personation’ in polling stations – the type of fraud voter ID seeks to address.

Just one of these allegations resulted in a prosecution – out of nearly 45 million votes cast in total throughout 2017 (i.e. 0.000063%).

Furthermore, as reported inThe Guardian on Sunday, none of the five boroughs taking part the trials has experienced a single instance of polling station impersonation in the past decade.

In response to our concerns about the trials, the government has argued that people need ID to pick up a parcel and the same approach should be taken. Yet mandatory photographic ID, as is being trialled in three of the five pilots, would prevent millions from ‘picking up their parcel’ – or in this case, exercising your democratic right.

And while you can forget your ID for a parcel and pick it up the next day, the same cannot be said for casting a vote.

Finally, it is worth considering whether these trials will even provide any valuable information on which to test the success, failure or otherwise of the policy.

All are urban areas and most are in the South East. None of them have unemployment rates substantially above the national average, and none has a high proportion of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) residents. The trial areas are therefore unlikely to adequately represent the groups most likely to be affected by the introduction of voter ID, as set out earlier in this blog.

An election worker in one of the trial areas has informed us it will be impossible to measure the numbers of people who are deterred from going to the polling station because this new barrier has been introduced.

For example – turnout alone will be an insufficient measure: while it may be pushed down by those who are put off from voting or who fail to meet the ID requirements, it might be pushed up by the unusually high levels of publicity in the pilot areas for these elections, due to these trials taking place.

In conclusion, our report:

  • raises serious concerns over the risk to democracy posed by mandatory ID
  • challenges the key arguments and supposed evidence for the policy
  • points to significant flaws in the trials themselves

These trials are ill-thought-out, and raise serious concerns for our democracy. They must not be a ‘fait accompli’ to justify a national roll-out of voter ID.