This briefing summarises the voting rights for different types of elections in the UK.
Documents to download
Voter ID (679 KB , PDF)
The Elections Bill 2021-22 was introduced on 5 June 2021. If enacted, it would require voters to show voter ID in polling stations for UK parliamentary elections, local elections in England and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. The requirements would not apply at Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru elections, nor local council elections in Scotland and Wales.
The types of ID required include passports, driving licences, PASS scheme and Blue Badge cards, and some travel passes. People without existing photo ID will be able to apply for a free voter card from their local council to use in the polling station. Research commissioned by the Government found 96% of respondents had suitable photo ID with a recognisable picture.
The Government’s view is that asking voters to prove their identities will safeguard against the potential voter fraud in polling stations. It says “showing identification is something people of all backgrounds do every day.”
Opposition to the Bill
Critics say that ‘personation’, the crime of pretending to be someone else when you vote, is rare and introducing voter ID is a disproportionate response. As of August 2020, one conviction and one caution had been secured for personation offences at elections held in 2019.
Following press coverage that a bill was due in 2021, Cat Smith, Labour’s shadow minister for democracy, said: “Voting is safe and secure in the UK, meaning this policy is just an unnecessary barrier to democratic participation”.
Kirsten Oswald, the SNP’s Westminster deputy leader, said: “These laws are designed to suppress votes among groups that traditionally vote against the Tories.”
The campaign organisation, Liberty warned of the effect voter ID could have on marginalised groups. Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns, 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.”
People casting their vote in polling stations in Great Britain currently do not normally need to present any form of ID before receiving a ballot paper.
Voters in Northern Ireland must provide photo ID before they are given a ballot paper. Electoral Commission research found little evidence that the ID requirements in Northern Ireland have affected turnout and the allegations of personation have been eliminated.
Why introduce voter ID?
Since 2014, the Electoral Commission has recommended that photo ID should be required in the rest of the UK. The Commission recommends that any voter ID system should mirror that in Northern Ireland. Voters in Northern Ireland without access to approved photo ID can apply for a free photographic electoral ID card to ensure people without existing ID can still vote.
In August 2016 the then Government Anti-Corruption Champion, Lord Pickles, published a report on electoral fraud. It highlighted the trust-based nature of polling station voting and recommended that the Government should consider voter ID. He suggested the Government pilot various options before introducing a system nationwide.
Voter ID pilot schemes
Pilots were held in 2018 and 2019. The Government declared them a success following its own evaluations 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.”
The High Court heard a challenge to the pilots in March 2019. A voter without the required 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 an appeal and a judgment is still pending.
What the Electoral Commission has said about the pilots
The Electoral Commission’s statutory evaluations of the pilots said they were well run and found that most people already have access to suitable photo ID.
Its 2019 evaluation found that some groups of people may 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.
The Commission has cautioned that a national rollout must ensure voting remains accessible for all and that the application process for a free voter card should be easy and accessible. It also says a voter ID scheme should be introduced with manageable timescales and proper funding.
Canada introduced voter ID in federal elections in 2008, following cross-party agreement by the three main parties.
Similar concerns about accessibility and security were raised as the current debate in the UK. A case study of the use in Canada briefly outlines the introduction of voter ID, the legal challenge, and procedural changes since it was introduced.
Documents to download
Voter ID (679 KB , PDF)
An explanation of the motion for an instruction to the Public Bill Committee examining the Elections Bill 2021-22.
The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22, introduced in May 2021, completed its passage through the House of Commons, on 13 September 2021, and been sent to the House of Lords.