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20 February 2023

Police on standby for polling station abuse over voter ID

UK election planners are preparing for tensions at the May local elections as voters need photo identification for the first time.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Police forces have been told to prepare for abuse at polling stations when voter identification is introduced at the May local elections.

Election administrators have been working with police to prepare for any possible escalation of arguments that may result from voters being turned away. “Risk assessments and work with other agencies are being taken by returning officers [who are in charge of the election in each constituency] to make sure local authorities and local police forces are geared up for whatever response is necessary, and that a rapid response is available,” revealed a senior figure involved in the organisation of UK elections.

“It’s a big thing that keeps being flagged,” the source added. “The brute reality is that people without the correct paperwork are going to have to be turned away. That could lead to difficult conversations and unnecessary abuse, which could escalate in the worst-case scenario.”

The fear is that voters without the right ID may be confused and frustrated, and take it out on polling station workers. “Returning officers are being put in a difficult situation,” said another source with experience of how elections are run in the UK. “Conflict is a risk – because you are taking away someone’s right to vote, and putting the people behind the desk in an awkward situation. Before they’d just take your name, and now they’re like bouncers. They’re more exposed, and suddenly on the front line of it.”

The Electoral Commission’s latest risk register for returning officers, updated on 8 February this year, includes the risk of a “threat to public safety” caused by “problems with voter dissatisfaction or aggressive behaviour”. It advises returning officers to provide staff with contact details for local police.

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Polling station security is a matter for returning officers and local police forces. While the government told the New Statesman it did not have its own specific plan for police to be on standby – beyond what it described as the “normal practice” of police being ready to be called out if issues arise – a spokesperson said “we cannot be complacent when it comes to ensuring our democracy remains secure”.

“Returning officers always have close working relationships with their local police force around polling stations and counts, and this year will be no different,” said Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators. “Longer queues and waiting times to vote are more likely, but we expect electors will understand the new process takes time, and that polling station staff are volunteers who are taking the time to get everything right.”

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In May’s local elections voters in England will for the first time be required to bring photo identification or alternatively a “voter authority certificate” to the polling station. When voter ID was trialled in 2018 and 2019 there was no evidence that staff faced abuse from those who did not have ID.

However, during a pilot in 2019, the number of people prevented from voting in one day due to the requirement for voter ID was more than four times the country-wide number that had been accused of voter fraud by impersonation since 2010. Instances of voter fraud in the UK are very rare. In elections between 2010 and 2018, across the whole of the UK, just 181 people were accused of impersonating another individual at the polling station, according to Electoral Commission data. No further action was taken in most cases. Only two people were convicted of voter impersonation at a polling station.

One concern is that people who vote in tight windows, called “crunch times” by one insider – first thing in the morning before work, say, or during their lunch break – may miss out on voting if the ID checks create delays. (If you’re in the queue by 10pm, when polls close, you can still cast your vote.)

The introduction of voter ID poses other potential hindrances too. A major concern is how rushed the legislation has been. It only became law in mid-January this year, for example, which meant the Electoral Commission published its updated guidance for returning officers in February – just three months before the May elections. This means training has been a scramble.

“It takes time to translate law into practical advice, and guidance has been published in recent weeks when election planning is already well under way,” said Stanyon, whose organisation runs training. “This has affected our voter ID and accessibility training for electoral administrators, as our training is based on official law and guidance.”

The public information campaign to encourage people to apply for voter authority certificates – which you can use if you don’t have the correct photo ID – launched before the application website was even up and running. The New Statesman heard from one source familiar with the system that problems in the back end of the online application portal are still being fixed, even if users can now apply smoothly.

As early as 11 July 2022, during the passage of the voter ID bill, election management companies were warned in a private letter from the Association of Electoral Administrators seen by the New Statesman that “we no longer believe it is possible to safely and successfully introduce Voter ID in May 2023… There is now insufficient time and resource to deliver such a technical change to the standard voters deserve.”

Stanyon said his organisation was supporting returning officers, electoral registration officers and electoral administrators through “an incredibly tight timescale”. “They will do the best job they can with the time and resources available to them,” he said. “While we would have supported a delay to voter ID, potentially introducing it Great Britain-wide for the first time at a general election would be much riskier. Lessons from this first-time roll-out will be crucial.”

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The premise of the legislation is also controversial. Its opponents warn that it will put people from certain demographics – who are less likely to have photo ID or apply for a voter authority certificate – off voting. These groups, identified by the Electoral Commission, include the over-85s, trans and non-binary people, disabled people, ethnicities with low ID ownership, and homeless people.

The government rejected attempts by the Labour Party and the Conservative peer David Willetts to extend the list of eligible identification. Unfairness is now entrenched by a policy that already felt skewed in favour of more traditionally Tory-leaning voters. For example, Londoners aged 60-plus are allowed to use their free Oyster travel cards, but students cannot use their 18-plus version.

Labour’s idea to introduce a “vouching” system – whereby, as in Canada, a voter with ID can vouch for someone without – was rejected. In the US you can cast a provisional vote without the right paperwork then come back to confirm your identity the next day, a mitigation also omitted by the UK law.

“With no alternatives on the day for voters, these rules make the UK’s voter ID scheme one of the strictest among countries without universal ID,” said Jess Garland, director of policy and research for the Electoral Reform Society. “Councils have repeatedly warned about the speed at which they are being asked to implement these complex changes and to ensure that voters are prepared for them. Millions of voters still lack the required ID. One voter turned away is one too many, and the government’s insistence on driving this policy through, despite the dangers, risks undermining the public’s trust in our electoral process.”

The government spokesperson said: “The vast majority of people already have a form of acceptable identification and we are actively supporting the very small proportion of people who may not. We are also funding the necessary equipment and staffing to support processing.”

Read more:

Have the Conservatives done enough for women?

Will Labour’s stance on crime decide the next election?

How to reform the US police – with Neil Gross

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