UK Politics

Voting: Could ID checks affect who participates in elections?

woman with two dogs at polling station Image copyright Getty Images

The government plans to pass a law requiring people to show an approved form of photo ID in order to vote - in general elections in Britain and local elections in England.

This, the government says, is to address "the potential for electoral fraud in our current system".

So, how widespread is it?

In 2017, the year of the last general election, there were 336 reported cases of electoral fraud, most of which resulted in no action being taken.

One report of electoral fraud resulted in a conviction and eight resulted in police cautions.

There were roughly 45 million people registered to vote in parliamentary elections in 2017.

Because of the relatively low levels of fraud, campaign group the Electoral Reform Society has raised concerns introducing voter ID would be disproportionate, given the risk it could shut eligible people out of voting.

That is because not everyone in the the UK has a form of photo ID, such as a passport or driving licence.

Research by the Electoral Commission, the independent body that sets the standards of elections in the UK, indicated in 2015 about 3.5 million citizens or 7.5% of the electorate did not have access to any approved photo ID.

There are variations across different groups - for example, women are considerably less likely than men, and black people considerably less likely than white people, to have a driving licence. Certain ethnic groups such as Gypsies and Irish Travellers are much less likely than the average to have a passport.

The government plans to offset this risk - of denying some people the vote because they do not have ID - by introducing a new form of identity document voters can apply for free of charge.

This follows the recommendation of the Electoral Commission in a report on a pilot of voter ID checks during the 2019 local elections.

The Electoral Commission found the vast majority of people already had an acceptable form of ID.

During the pilot, in 10 areas in England, about 2,000 people were turned away at polling stations for lack of ID.

About 750 of these people did not subsequently return with ID to cast their ballot, representing less than 1% of voters in the pilot areas.

But, while the numbers of people being turned away for lack of in the 10 pilot areas were relatively small, they far outstripped the reported cases of alleged voter fraud in the whole country.

The report also found, in the pilot areas, awareness of the new ID requirements differed by demographic group, with younger voters and those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds being less likely to know about the requirements.

And that is an issue that might not necessarily be mitigated by supplying free ID, since voters would have to be aware of the requirement in order to apply.

As the Electoral Commission has stated in the past, a public awareness campaign would be needed to ensure the affected groups knew they needed to apply for a new ID.

A Cabinet Office official said voter ID was a "reasonable and proportionate way to protect our elections... voters in Northern Ireland have been doing it with ease for decades".

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