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2 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

There’s a big problem with the government’s VoterID pilots

The new rules aren’t being given a firm test.

By Stephen Bush

One of the neglected sub-plots of the coming local elections are the Conservatives’ Voter ID trials, in which five local authorities – Watford, Woking, Gosport, Bromley, and Swindon – will have different ID requirements if you want to vote rather than the usual British practice of any registered voter being able to rock up, give their name and cast a vote.

The government’s VoterID plans are based on a largely non-existent problem: there is no evidence that there is significant undetected electoral fraud going on in the United Kingdom. What electoral fraud there is in the United Kingdom would not be reduced by introducing ID requirements at the ballot box. If the Conservatives really wanted to clamp down on electoral fraud, the obvious first step would be to scrap or at least severely limit the availability of postal votes. (One obvious way of doing this would be to restrict its usage to people in receipt of some kind of mobility assistance from the government.) But this won’t happen, because Conservative voters are as likely to take advantage of a postal vote as Labour ones are.

That the government shows no sign of tackling this problem – or indeed of issuing a free ID card for polling stations to mitigate any negative consequences of the scheme, such as the one they have in Northern Ireland – gives weight to Labour’s suspicion that the plans are designed to prevent Labour voters from exercising their democratic rights.

Is that fair? Well, given the lack of mitigating measures to reduce any risk of disenfranchisement, it feels reasonable. The selected areas for the VoterID pilots could almost have been deliberately chosen not to tell us very much about the benefits or drawbacks of the scheme.  

The crucial questions are a) does the new measure deter voting? and b) does it disproportionately effect certain demographics more than another? So ideally, what you would want is two ethnically diverse boroughs, two homogenous boroughs, two boroughs that are about average for the United Kingdom, and so on for age, poverty and other factors that may be disproportionately hit by introducing VoterID requirements. And then you would pair them off – so one borough would get a very loose set of VoterID requirements, and another a much tighter one.

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But the government hasn’t done this. Of the five boroughs, none has a significantly older population than the national average (16 per cent over 65 is the number to beat per the last census), and all have fewer children living in poverty than the national average. In none of the boroughs going through the pilots is the proportion of ethnic minorities larger than the number of white British people.

Happily, Swindon, the closest of the pilot boroughs to the national average, has the toughest ID regime: there, voters must have any of their polling card, passport, photographic driving licence, biometric immigration document, or a photographic identity card issued in the EEA. But the positives end there. 

Bromley is the only London borough in the pilot and it is a poor choice as a use of London testing ground as it is demographically unlike most London boroughs: it is older and whiter that most of the capital. In addition, it has far away the loosest ID requirement of the pilot five: in addition to those forms of ID that are acceptable in Swindon, voters can rock up with any of an 60+ Oyster card, a Freedom Pass, or any PASS ID card. If they don’t have any of those they can also bring any two of the following: a debit card or credit card, a mortgage, bank or credit card statement, a birth certificate, a marriage certificate, a current P45 or P60, a firearms certificate or a non-photographic ID card.

You can (hopefully) see the problem: it will be hard to tell if the ID requirements are having a negative effect on voter participation when we are not going to get a good read on whether any of the potentially problematic groups (the old, the poor or minority groups) are going to struggle.

It looks an awful lot as if the government has already reached a verdict about what it wants the VoterID pilots to show and has chosen its pilot areas accordingly.

It is also worth noting that, even in Swindon, the government is not casting a very tight net: determined criminals could very easily get through. It really does feel as if these plans are based around making it harder for supporters of the Opposition parties to vote, rather than actually clamping down on any electoral fraud.