UK Politics

Voters 'should be required to show photo ID at elections', says watchdog

A polling station in Bath during the 2011 local elections

Voters should be required to show photo ID at polling stations in Great Britain to lessen the risk of fraud, the Electoral Commission has said.

The elections watchdog said it planned to introduce the change in time for the 2019 local government and European Parliament elections.

Although it has yet to confirm full details of the plan, it said it would be based on the Northern Ireland model, where voters already need photo ID.

Campaigners No2ID condemned the plan.

But Electoral Commission chairwoman Jenny Watson said most voters could use passports, driving licences or even public transport photocards to prove who they are at polling stations.

Those without any of these documents could request a free elections ID card, she added.

Ms Watson said: "Proven cases of electoral fraud are rare and, when it is committed, the perpetrators tend to be candidates or their supporters. Voters are the victims and sustained action is needed now to prevent fraud from taking place."

Media captionClegg dismisses MP's voter ID plea

In June, individual voter registration for British elections is expected to come into force, requiring each member of a household to register to vote individually. Currently, the "head of the household" supplies details of other people living at the address.

Ms Watson told the BBC this meant "people who want to commit fraud will have to look at other places in the system that could be vulnerable", adding: "The most vulnerable of those is voting in person at polling stations, and that's why we're suggesting that people should bring ID."

In its report, Electoral Fraud in the UK, the commission concluded that electoral fraud had probably not been attempted in more than a "handful" of local authority wards.

But it said it would continue its research into concerns that some communities, "specifically those with roots in parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh", were particularly susceptible to the practice.

'Not acceptable'

"People convicted of fraud come from a range of backgrounds including white British, South Asian and other European backgrounds. It would be a mistake to suggest that electoral fraud only takes place within specific South Asian communities," the commission said.

But it added: "The evidence and views we have heard raise significant questions about whether individuals within these communities are able effectively to exercise their right to vote, and whether they are able to participate in elections on the same basis as other electors across the UK.

"It is not acceptable to explain or excuse electoral fraud on the basis of actual or perceived differences in cultural approaches to democratic participation."

Sixteen local authority areas - all of them in England - were identified by the commission as being at greater risk.

Northern Ireland has had a requirement on voters to produce some proof of identity before casting their ballot since 1985.

"Nonetheless, the system was considered to be inadequate because of the ease with which identity documents could be falsified," the commission said.

In 2003, the rules in Northern Ireland changed, requiring voters to produce photographic, rather then just general, ID. This includes passports, driving licences and some public transport passes, which do not have to be in date, but must be of a "good enough likeness" to the voter.

People without any such documents can apply for a special ID card free of charge.

Since 2003, there have been no reported cases of voter impersonation in Northern Ireland and there was "little evidence of voters being turned away from the polling station for presenting an incorrect form of identification", the commission said.

"We gathered substantial evidence during our review that the lack of a requirement for ID [in England, Scotland and Wales] is both an actual and a perceived weakness in the system," the commission said.

But, it conceded, there would be increased costs with replicating the Northern Ireland scheme in the rest of the UK, including the cost of establishing a similar regime and public information campaigns reminding voters to bring ID with them to the polls.

The commission said additional measures to protect the integrity of the vote were needed before the next set of local and European elections in May, and proposed changes to the existing code of conduct for campaigners.

"Campaigners must no longer handle postal votes, or postal vote applications under any circumstances," Ms Watson explained.

"We should be able to achieve this through a strengthened code of conduct. But if we cannot, we will recommend that the law is changed."

But No2ID's Guy Herbert said: "It would be absurd for a government that scrapped the Home Office's centralised ID scheme to make presenting ID a requirement to vote.

"Does this quango get to change the face of our society? The idea is all cost and very little benefit. Holding official identity documents would become a requirement for democratic participation, registration effectively compulsory.

"The Electoral Commission's proposals would make it harder to vote, lower turnout, and inconvenience most those who are least likely to have or keep government-issued documents. And in effect it would revive a national identity system for everybody."

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has signalled that he does not support the move, telling MPs on Tuesday that he thought the measures already being brought in would "stamp out the problems of fraud".

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The government takes the issue of electoral fraud very seriously and we thank the Electoral Commission for their work on this issue.

"We will consider the recommendations in this report carefully and respond in due course."

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