Why compulsory voter ID will weaken rather than strengthen democracy

Photo ID laws will discriminate against marginalised groups and raise the barriers to electoral participation.

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At what point does a measure intended to “ensure the integrity of elections” end up having the opposite effect, disenfranchising voters more than it safeguards the system? That’s a question we should all be asking about the UK government’s plan to require voters to show ID at polling stations in the future. 

According to a government spokesperson: “Showing identification to vote is a reasonable approach to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud in our current system, and we are committed to introducing an identification requirement for all voters at polling stations.”  

Note the word “potential” there – the government is not able to cite actual evidence of widespread in-person voter fraud, because there isn’t any. According to the Electoral Commission, the independent agency that regulates elections: “In 2018, there was no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud. Of the 266 cases that were investigated by the police, one led to a conviction, and two suspects accepted police cautions. In 2017, there was one conviction and eight suspects accepted police cautions.” 

The Electoral Reform Society, meanwhile, puts allegations of voter fraud at 34 out of 58 million-plus votes cast in all elections held in 2019. 

The government has a number of retorts to this. One is that ID is already required to vote in Northern Ireland. This is true, but Northern Ireland’s rules were a response to widespread impersonation fraud, with 149 arrests and 104 prosecutions in 1983. Thankfully, the virtually non-existent levels of in-person fraud in the rest of the UK make such action unnecessary. 

The government argues, too, that many European countries have voter ID laws. It neglects to mention, however, that these countries also have free, government-issued identity cards, making this requirement less of a barrier for citizens wanting to exercise their democratic rights.  

As Susie Alegre, a human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, points out: “In the absence of mandatory photo ID, making voting dependent on it is likely to have a discriminatory impact on certain groups, excluding them from the democratic process.” 

Indeed, as the New Statesman data team reported this week, nearly a quarter of voters – 11 million people – do not have a passport or driving licence, while 3.5 million lack any form of photo ID at all. 

3.5 million voters have no form of photo ID
Electors' access to photo ID (%)
Electoral Commission

Ministers have attempted to underplay the threat by falsely claiming that photo ID is required when collecting parcels. There has also been talk of people being able to apply for a free electoral certificate if they lack an acceptable form of ID (trials across the country have experimented with a range of options in addition to passports and driving licences, although the government has not yet said what documentation will be acceptable).  

As Alegre notes, requiring some people to apply for a new form of ID “just adds an additional hurdle to the democratic process which is likely to deter people from voting”. It would in essence create a two-tier voting system in which it is easier and more straightforward to participate in elections if you drive or travel abroad than if you don’t. 

Those affected are by definition more likely to be from marginalised groups: low-income people, ethnic minorities, young people. It would be naive to overlook the fact that these demographics are also less likely to vote Conservative. Tellingly, one of the acceptable alternatives to a passport or driving licence in the London trials was a Freedom Pass, which is issued to pensioners. Student IDs, which are issued by government-backed institutions, were not included. And Boris Johnson’s incorrect suggestion at a televised press conference on Monday (10 May) that the requirement would only apply to people voting for the first time inadvertently revealed what type of voters were on his mind. 

There are other reasons to suspect the government is not being entirely genuine in its insistence that it wants to protect elections – namely that it is making scant attempt to tighten rules on postal voting, despite postal vote fraud being more widespread than the in-person variety. Dr Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society, also highlights “the nine million people missing from the electoral roll, and the glaring loopholes in our lobbying laws”, calling mandatory ID (at a cost of up to £20m per election) “an expensive distraction and the wrong priority right now”. 

And the obsession with barely existent voter fraud over other threats to elections is not merely misguided – it is actively harmful.  

When questioned earlier this week on there only having been six cases of voter fraud in the last election, Health Secretary Matt Hancock replied: “I think that’s six cases too many.” But this is the wrong way of viewing the issue. In the 2019 trial across some local authorities, more than 2,000 people were turned away from the polling station for a lack of acceptable ID, of whom over 750 did not return. The question should be how many legitimate voters Hancock and his colleagues are prepared to ban for the sake of those six cases? 

[see also: Corruption in Britain has reached new heights under Boris Johnson’s government]

Or, asked another way, how much disenfranchisement can we allow as a country before the concept of “electoral integrity” becomes meaningless?   

What if voting required not just a form of ID, but for voters to queue for hours to cast their ballots? Or an exam testing the voter’s understanding of UK constitutional laws and processes? One could argue that voting is a responsibility that should be taken seriously, and that asking people to demonstrate their commitment by dedicating their time or proving they are properly informed would result in the electorate making better decisions. A certain amount of inconvenience (as some are arguing of the ID requirement) should be a price we are all willing to pay to participate in our democracy. 

The result would be the immediate disenfranchisement of anyone unable to take a day off work or whose education wasn’t deemed up to scratch. Such a system could hardly be called universal suffrage, and while those who did manage to vote might be more engaged and better informed, their decisions would lack legitimacy.  

If the above thought experiment seems absurd, it’s because we understand intrinsically that electoral integrity is a balance: for our democracy to work we need our elections to be fair and protected from fraud, but we also need them to be as accessible as possible. Otherwise, the governments we get cannot be said to have a democratic mandate. Voter suppression of certain groups undermines the legitimacy of the entire process. It is not just a threat to voters who are wrongly turned away, but to everyone who has a stake in the democratic system. 

If in-person fraud were widespread, there might be a case that a voter ID requirement were the lesser of two evils. Without evidence of any such fraud, it risks damaging the very principle of democracy while producing no conceivable benefit. One might even wonder whether the government cares about free and fair elections at all. 

[see also: Why I will never forgive Boris Johnson for the damage he has done to the country I love]

Rachel Cunliffe is deputy online editor of the New Statesman

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