A briefing paper on the legal issues surrounding a Scottish independence referendum
Documents to download
Voter ID (893 KB , PDF)
In April 2022, the Elections Act 2022 was passed by the UK Parliament. The Act will require voters in Great Britain to show photo ID before being issued a ballot paper in polling stations at UK Parliamentary elections, local council elections and referendums in England and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. This will also apply to a proxy voter, someone voting in person on someone’s behalf.
Voter ID is designed to prevent personation’, the crime of pretending to be someone else when you vote. The Government acknowledges levels of fraud are low but argues that every ballot matters, and that voter ID will protect voters from having their vote stolen.
The voter ID provisions are due to be in place for local elections in England May 2023 and at any UK Parliamentary election held after that date. The Electoral Commission is planning an extensive public awareness campaign in the first half of 2023.
The types of ID to be allowed are set out in section 5 of the Act. These include passports, photographic driving licences, biometric immigration documents and some concessionary travel passes.
Free voter document
A new free voter document, to be called a Voter Authority Certificate, will be made available for those without any other form of photographic ID. People are likely to be able to apply for these from January 2023. The detailed draft secondary legislation required for the applications process was laid in Parliament on 3 November 2022, and must be approved by both Houses of Parliament. It is expected voters can apply for a card in early 2023.
Concerns over timetable
Concerns have been raised by electoral administrators about the timetable for introduction of voter ID for local election in England in May 2023. They have also raised concerns about recruitment of polling station staff, already affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Government remains committed to delivering voter ID in time for the May 2023 elections. In September 2022 it said implementing the voter ID provisions were its priority and had agreed to implement other changes included in the Elections Act 2022 once the voter ID provisions were in place.
During the passage of the Elections Bill opposition parties highlighted concerns that requiring photo ID might disenfranchise some voters. Cat Smith (Labour) said, “Concerns have been raised from across the House and from charities and campaigning organisations that disabled people, older people, younger people and people without the spare cash to buy that passport or driving licence are going to be disenfranchised.”
Brendan O’Hara (SNP) expressed highlighted the incidence of personation was low saying, “voter fraud at polling stations barely reaches the height of minuscule…We have to ask: what is the problem they are seeking to solve?”
During the Lords stages of the Bill an amendment from Lord Willets (Conservative) was passed that extended the list of types of ID to other types of photo ID and non-photo ID. The amendment was overturned by the House of Commons. The Government’s view was the types of ID listed were not sufficiently secure and might be prone to fraud.
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 ID should be required in Great Britain before voters are issued with a ballot paper. In December 2015 the Commission published a report on delivering and costing (PDF) a voter ID scheme. One of its key assumptions was that photo ID would be required but also cautioned that accessibility was fundamental and any scheme should be backed up by a free voter card for those without an alternative.
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 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”.
A voter without the required voter ID challenged the pilots in the courts. The case eventually came before the Supreme Court but in April 2022 it gave its judgement that the pilots were legal.
What the Electoral Commission 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 (893 KB , PDF)
A briefing paper on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill 2022-23
This Commons Library Briefing Paper provides information about which groups in the UK are considered to be politically disengaged, and why. This paper will use the term ‘political disengagement’ to capture certain behaviours and attitudes towards the political system. It uses a range of different sources, which are referenced in the PDF.