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17 February 2021

Plans to make people bring ID to vote are dangerous and pointless

What little electoral fraud there is in the United Kingdom does not concern in-person voting. 

By Stephen Bush

With the inevitability of an unloved season, proposals to require people to produce some form of photo ID before voting are once again being floated in the press, this time in the Sun. The explicit argument for them is that these measures would tackle voter fraud, but they have been criticised by the opposition parties and pro-democracy groups for placing undue barriers between people and their electoral rights.

It’s important, first, to note that there is little to no voter fraud in the United Kingdom, and what little there is has been concentrated around postal votes. It is, of course, possible that someone out there is rigging British electoral results. But it has to be said that there is little evidence that this is the case, unless they are rigging electoral outcomes in line with nationwide swings and opinion poll results for the thrill of the chase, which does not seem to be altogether likely. Mandating that people bring a form of photo ID with them in order to cast their vote erects barriers between people and their democratic rights to no good end. To make matters worse, the problem would be experienced asymmetrically: it would be most acute among the poor, the young and people from ethnic minorities. 

Now, one good argument is that the perception that elections are fair is equally important as the reality. This is a good argument, but the problem is that the primary source of the perception that British election results are not fair is people seeking support for measures that would limit people’s ease of voting. It’s difficult to take this argument seriously, particularly when they are no measures proposed to make postal voting more secure.

It’s not hard to see the reasons for that: it’s not in the Conservatives’ interests to reduce the number of people voting by post. Pretty much every political party in the United Kingdom benefits from postal votes as, of course, do voters, for the added convenience and flexibility they bring. Around a fifth of voters sent ballots in by post at the 2017 election and a much greater number of people have the option to do so. All the major political parties tend to structure their general election campaigns so they have one big policy offer or attack line to run alongside what you might think of as “postal polling day”: the week that most people’s postal votes arrive on their doorsteps.

But a sign that someone is not serious about tackling either the perception of electoral fraud or its practice is if they bring forward plans aimed at ensuring elections are free and fair that include a requirement to bring a form of ID to a polling station but leave postal votes untouched.

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The last time these proposals were floated under Boris Johnson, that time in the Telegraph, they contained a number of welcome improvements: a free form of ID for all voters, issued by the government, which eliminates the problem of not everyone having ID, and some useful measures that would tackle postal voting fraud. It’s to be hoped that when the full detail is published, those proposals are back. Otherwise, what we are left with is a set of measures designed around making it harder for people – likely primarily supporters of the opposition parties  to vote, while leaving the one source of actual electoral fraud in the United Kingdom untouched.