Next May, people across England and Northern Ireland will head to the polls for the local elections. But some may find they may not be able to vote, unless they have the right kind of photo identification. It will be the first time new voter ID rules will be put to the test, despite a handful of groups calling for them to be delayed so that if they have to be implemented, it can be done properly.
At the moment, the current rules lack coherence. Passports and driving licences can be used, alongside travel cards like Oyster cards for over 60s. Student Oyster cards, however, won’t count. Anyone without these forms of ID can acquire a free voting ID from their local authority. But every extra step of added bureaucracy is a barrier to voting.
According to the government, elections need to be more secure and transparent. The final goal is to increase the electorate’s trust in the process.
Fine. That makes sense. Or it would, if there was a luck of trust in the system now. In the 2019 general election, 47,568,611 people cast a ballot. There were 164 alleged cases of electoral fraud. In all the elections that year, including the local elections and European Parliament elections, there were only four convictions for fraud, and two police cautions doled out. Six, in total, out of tens of millions. The scale of the problem is minuscule.
Policy-makers retort that this is not about electoral fraud taking place, but about the perception of fraud. If we ask for stricter identification criteria, people will feel like the process is safer, they say – even if the risk of illegitimacy is already close to zero. If this is the main gripe, it is a policy better suited to a PR-exercise than adding in hurdles to casting a ballot. As Penny Mourdant said in the dying days of Liz Truss: “Our policy is great, but our comms are sh**.”
Millions could be disenfranchised by these new rules. This is not a highly technical, niche debate for political junkies. It has far-reaching implications for our communities and our democratic process. If you look at the kinds of IDs accepted, such as those for older demographics, student IDs and under-25 Railcards are excluded.
Participation tends to be lower among younger people; they have good reasons to be disillusioned with our political climate. They should be the ones encouraged to vote, the ones for which new, straightforward avenues are opened up. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that it’s not a coincidence that a Conservative government is prioritising an older demographic that tends to vote for their party – as opposed to more Labour-leaning young people. While this is a stretch, it points to a political problem the Conservatives will face if they appear to be favouring older Brits.
It’s not just the young either. “Passports and driving licences are things you have to pay for, so people on low income might not have them”, says Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society. Those people will be able to ask their local authorities for a free voting ID, but clearly putting another process in place between the voter and the ballot box disincentives them. You don’t need a degree in politics to know that the easier it is for people to vote, the more people will show up to do it.
Local authorities, with limited time and stretched resources to get ready, will also struggle to ensure the infrastructure is in place. “The electoral community is nervous”, says Peter Stanyon, chief executive at the Association of Electoral Administrators. Forty-five per cent of councils that will be part of the 2023 elections say they are “not at all confident” or “not so confident” they can train new staff on the new voter ID requirements, according to a fresh report by the Constitution Society. Asked whether they’re worried that delivering the reform might cause problems in polling stations, not a single respondent said “not at all”. Many election teams are based on small stuffing numbers, and will struggle to manage change and to kickstart the production of free voting IDs.
The next general election will be the most serious litmus test, where the impact of the changes will unfold on its true scale. The proportion of people who might end up unable to vote “could lead to a situation in which confidence could be affected if it’s not managed carefully”, according to Toby James, professor of politics and public policy at the University of East Anglia. This would be counter to the government’s explicit aims of restoring confidence in elections, even though no one is sure it was ever lost.
There is an ongoing question of identification in the UK. ID cards have been floated to improve the NHS and address illegal migration. But ultimately, these reforms are “an inefficient way of running identification”, says Rosie Beacon, senior policy analyst at the Tony Blair Institute.
In changing a system so integral to our democracy, the government needs to take the public with them, make them understand the need for change. But it’s not clear they understand it themselves.