Documents to download

The current Government has said it plans to introduce a requirement for voters in Great Britain to show voter ID before being issued a ballot paper in polling stations for UK Parliamentary elections, local council elections in England and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales.

An Electoral Integrity Bill is expected in 2021, which reportedly would include provisions for implementing voter ID requirements for reserved elections by May 2023.

The Government argues that every ballot matters and that voter ID will protect voters from having their vote stolen. Speaking in April 2019, the Minister for the Constitution said, showing ID for services is an every-day activity and that, “proving who we are before we make a decision of huge importance at the ballot box should be no different.” 

Current situation

Voters casting their vote in polling stations in Great Britain currently do not normally need to present any form of identification before receiving a ballot paper.

Voters in Northern Ireland must provide photo ID before receiving a ballot paper. Voter ID requirements were introduced after the 1983 General Elections following concerns about the extent of voter fraud in Northern Ireland. Since 2003 photographic ID has been required before polling station voters are issued with a ballot paper. There has been no evidence that the ID requirements in Northern Ireland have affected turnout and the allegations of ‘personation’, the crime of pretending to be someone else when you vote, have been eliminated.

Since 2014 the Electoral Commission has recommended that photo ID should be required in the rest of the UK. In December 2015 the Commission published a report on options for delivering and costing a voter ID scheme. The scheme was modelled on the existing scheme operating in Northern Ireland.

The Commission estimated that the number of people who would have one of the forms of photo ID it was recommending was 92.5% of the electorate. In an electorate of approximately 46 million this would leave almost 3.5 million voters without suitable ID. The Commission estimated that limiting the acceptable form of ID to passports and photographic driving licences could potentially see almost a quarter of the electorate without acceptable photo ID.

The Commission recommends that any system of voter ID introduced in Great Britain should mirror that in Northern Ireland, where voters without access to approved photo ID can apply for a free photographic electoral ID card from their local council. Previous public attitude research by the Commission in 2013 found that most voters in Northern Ireland, which had individual registration and voter ID requirements before the rest of the UK, considered polling station voting arrangement to be ‘gold standard’, but that some felt that the security of postal and proxy voting could be improved further.

Pilots of voter ID

In August 2016 the then Government Anti-Corruption Champion, Sir Eric, now Lord Pickles, published a report on electoral fraud. He highlighted the trust-based nature of polling station voting and the lack of checks on people proving who they were when voting. This could give rise to the electoral offence of ‘personation’, where a voter pretends to be someone else to use their vote.

Pickles recommended that the Government should consider options for voter identification and suggested that the Government may wish to pilot various options before introducing a system nationwide.

Pilots were held in 2018 and 2019. The Government declared them a success following their own evaluation of the pilots and committed to introducing a voter ID scheme. The Government said that the overwhelmingly majority of people were able to vote and “there is no indication that any consistent demographic was adversely affected by the use of voter ID.”

A court challenge to the pilots in March 2019 was heard in the High Court. A voter without the required voter ID argued that the pilots were illegal. Although the Court acknowledged the controversial nature of the pilots it ruled that they were legal. In February 2021 the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal.

There are no pilot schemes in place for elections in May 2021.

Reaction to the pilots

The Local Government Information Unit criticised the Cabinet Office evaluations as being an “optimistic interpretation of extremely limited evidence” and that only “marginal information is available on the demographic makeup of the pilot areas”. It also said more comprehensive studies should be undertaken and warned “if the current plan goes ahead too quickly, news that people have been turned away as they were not able to produce ID on Election Day could well threaten the outcome of parliamentary contests.”

The Electoral Commission conducted statutory evaluations of both sets of pilots. The Commission found that a large majority of people already have access to suitable photo ID but that some groups of people would find it harder than others to show photo ID. It also found using poll cards as the approved type of ID would be less secure than photo ID and would require more costly equipment.

Overall, the Commission concluded:

  • However, we are not able to draw definitive conclusions, from these pilots, about how an ID requirement would work in practice, particularly at a national poll with higher levels of turnout or in areas with different socio-demographic profiles not fully represented in the pilot scheme.
  • If the policy is to be developed further, Government and Parliament should consider carefully the available evidence about the impact of different approaches on the accessibility and security of polling station voting in Great Britain.

Opposition parties and other views

Following press coverage that a Bill was due in 2021, the Labour Party renewed its opposition to the introduction of voter ID. Cat Smith, Labour’s shadow minister for democracy, said:

  • It doesn’t matter how the Government dresses it up, these plans will make it harder for working class, older and black people to vote. Giving people a say at the ballot box helps make our democratic country what it is, and we must not do anything to undermine that.

Mhairi Black, of the SNP, said “Elections should be inclusive and voter ID laws are, by their nature, exclusive”.

Campaign organisation Liberty, said: ‘‘If you’re young, if you’re a person of colour, if you’re disabled, trans or you don’t have a fixed address, you’re much less likely to have valid photo ID and could therefore be shut off from voting.”

Others have pointed out that the number of allegations and convictions of personation are low and that requiring ID is disproportionate. As of August 2020, one conviction and one caution had been secured for personation offences at elections held in 2019. There had been 20 allegations and the majority of cases led to no action.

The Government argue that vote stealing is not a victimless crime and it is a responsible measure to protect people’s vote.

This briefing also summarises the experience in Canada. Before 2008 Canada had a similar process for polling station voting in federal elections, where voters did not need to provide any ID before voting. In 2008, following cross-party agreement by the three main parties in the Canadian House of Commons at the time, voter ID was required for federal elections for the first time. Similar concerns to those raised here were voiced on either side of the argument. The case study briefly outlines the introduction of voter ID, the legal challenge and procedural changes since it was introduced.


Documents to download

Related posts

  • Coronavirus: Elections

    Coronavirus has had significant impact on elections in the UK. This briefing explains how the elections due in 2020 were postponed. It also examines the impact of the pandemic on preparations for the 2021 English local elections and devolved elections, including the measures put in place in England, Scotland and Wales, to allow the elections to go ahead.

    Coronavirus: Elections
  • Who can vote in UK elections?

    This paper sets out who can vote in UK elections. It provides information on the UK Parliamentary franchise and the different local government franchises in different parts of the UK.

    Who can vote in UK elections?