Voters in English local elections this May will be required to show photo ID for the first time. The Electoral Commission, the independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK, has begun its voter ID awareness campaign.

This Insight looks at the new rules and asks how they could affect the elections in May.

Why is voter ID being introduced?

The Government legislated for voter ID in the Election Act 2022. It argued the policy would “protect the integrity of our democracy”. It said the lack of effective identity checks at polling stations leaves the electoral system vulnerable to fraud.

Labour has opposed the policy. Alex Norris, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Democracy, said it will put “hurdles in the way” for voters and “reduce turnout”.

Some Conservatives have also been critical. Ruth Davidson, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said in an interview with the Times, “I think it’s trying to give a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, and that makes it politics as performance.”   

2014 research carried out by the Electoral Commission found no evidence to suggest there has been widespread, systemic voter fraud at polling stations. But the Commission thought that because registration and postal voting was made more secure, polling stations were more vulnerable to potential fraud. It has supported introducing voter ID so long as it delivers clear improvements to security, doesn’t prevent people from voting and is easy for electoral services teams at local councils to manage.

Voter ID isn’t completely new to the UK. Voters in Northern Ireland have been required to show photo ID at polling stations since 2003. The Commission’s 2014 research found little evidence to suggest that Northern Ireland’s scheme presents difficulties for people when voting.

What ID will be accepted?

Many forms of existing photo ID will be accepted including UK, EEA and Commonwealth passports, driving licences, many concessionary travel cards and Proof of Age Standards Scheme (PASS) cards.  The acceptable forms of existing ID were chosen to strike a balance between ID that is commonly held and those that require higher levels of security.

Photo ID doesn’t have to be in date, but the presiding officer needs to be satisfied it looks like the person voting.

What if I don’t have acceptable photo ID?

People without an existing acceptable form of voter ID will be able to apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate (VAC) to show at the polls. The VAC will display the holders’ name alongside a passport style photo of them.

The Electoral Commission has explained how to apply for a VAC on its website. The online application service went live on Monday (16 January). You can also apply by post. The deadline to apply in time for local elections in May is 5pm on Tuesday 25 April 2023.

How many people are likely to need a Voter Authority Certificate?

The Electoral Commission’s Public Opinion Tracker 2021, found that 4% of people eligible to vote (equivalent to around 1.9 million voters) did not have any of existing accepted forms of photo ID. A Cabinet Office survey carried out in 2021 estimated1.3 million people did not have acceptable ID.

Some people are less likely to have existing acceptable ID than others. Data from the Public Opinion Tracker 2021 indicates that more disadvantaged groups including unemployed people, those renting from a local authority or housing association, and people with a disability are less likely to have an existing form of accepted ID.

How will the new requirements affect turnout?

If someone turns up to the polls in May without an acceptable form of photo ID, they will be turned away. They can return with their ID (if they have it) while the polls are still open, but the fear is many people won’t bother.

The Government ran voter ID pilots in several local authority areas while developing the ID policy. The Electoral Commission found there was little evidence turnout was affected in areas piloting the policy in 2018.

Turnout was down by between two to six percentage points on 2018 levels in the 2019 pilot areas. However, it was not possible to determine how much of this change was because of voter ID rules.

Lots of factors that affect turnout including the weather, who’s contesting the election and where and when it is taking place. It’s not easy to attribute any change in turnout to just one factor.

The UK Government has promised to commission an independent review of voter ID following May’s local elections and the next two parliamentary elections. Its only when all the information can be reviewed that we will be able to assess how new voter ID rules have affected turnout.

Further reading

About the author: Jennifer Brown is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in elections.

Image: Hand casting a vote into the ballot box, © roibu- Adobe Stock #193580808

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