In 2016 the Government said it wanted to trial a system of making voters show ID before being allowed to vote. The five areas taking part in the pilot schemes at the May 2018 local elections have now been announced. The Electoral Commission has been calling for this since 2014, so why have the Government decided to act?

Voter ID Pilots

The Government announced it would pilot voter ID schemes at the local elections in England scheduled for May 2018 and invited councils to apply to be involved.

The location of the five pilots were announced last week:

  • Bromley
  • Gosport
  • Slough
  • Watford
  • Woking

The types of ID to be piloted have been set by the councils and will involve trialling both photo ID and non-photo ID.

In addition, Tower Hamlets will also run a separate postal voting pilot, looking at the security of postal votes and providing additional guidance in postal vote packs.

What are the current requirements in other areas?

Elections in Great Britain are based on trust. When you go and vote at a polling station you don’t need any form of ID to cast your ballot. You don’t even need to take your poll card.

As long as you registered to vote in time and appear on the voter list, all you need to do is say who you are and where you live. Some say this makes voting in a polling station vulnerable to fraud and the electoral offence of personation – the technical term for when someone votes pretending to be someone else, more on this below.

Northern Ireland had previously suffered from the perception of electoral fraud for decades. Voters have had to produce some form of ID since 1985 in order to get their ballot paper in a polling station. Since November 2003 this has had to be some form of photo ID. The types of ID allowed include passport, driving license, or a Translink card. Voters without any of these can apply to the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland for an electoral identity card.

What is personation?

This is the technical term where someone votes pretending to be someone else. Personation is an offence under Section 60 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and applies to voting in person at a polling station or by postal vote.

There have been no reported cases of personation in Northern Ireland since 2003. In Great Britain, the number of allegations of personation in polling stations was 21 cases in 2014, 26 cases in 2015, and 44 cases in 2016. In 2016 there was one successful prosecution and three cautions.

Calls for voter ID

The Electoral Commission’s view is that polling station voting in Great Britain remains vulnerable to personation because there are currently few checks available to prevent someone claiming to be an elector and voting in their name. It has called for the same system as used in Northern Ireland.

It is also concerned that as other electoral processes have been tightened up, people wanting to commit electoral fraud might move their focus to personation. Following the move to individual electoral registration (IER) it is much harder to register fictitious people. Changes to the postal voting process, where signatures are checked to ensure the declaration returned along with the ballot matches the signature held on file by the local authority, mean that both processes are much less prone to fraud than before.

Sir Eric Pickles, former MP for Brentwood and Ongar, was the Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion. His report on electoral fraud, Securing the ballot, had this to say about polling stations:

The most significant issue in relation to polling stations though is whether electors should be required to provide identification before being allowed to vote. Trust has been an enduring factor in British elections for many decades. But a number of commentators now point to the potential for significant abuse if people can commit personation at polling stations with little risk of detection. It is harder to take out a municipal library book than it is to vote in a polling station administered by the same council.

He recommended that the Government should consider introducing some sort of ID requirement at polling stations without prescribing what form this should take. He also suggested piloting alternatives.

The Association of Electoral Administrators has highlighted:

international observers continue to question the lack of any requirement to produce identification at the point of voting in-person at a polling station. It remains a potential vulnerability in the electoral process in Great Britain.

Reaction to the Pickles report

The Labour Party, while welcoming much of the Pickles report, said plans for voter ID risked discriminating against those entitled to vote but who don’t hold appropriate ID. Some groups (such as the poor, the elderly and black and minority ethnic communities) are more likely to lack the required ID – for example, a passport or driving licence.

The Electoral Reform Society has echoed those concerns and has suggested that better training of election staff and Returning Officers, stronger powers against voter intimidation, and making it easier to launch ‘election petitions’ to report fraud would be better options.

The Electoral Commission has welcomed the pilots but continues to call for the system in place in Northern Ireland to be introduced in the rest of the UK. It points out that voters’ confidence that elections are well-run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain.

The Electoral Commission also points out that the non-photographic ID was abandoned in Northern Ireland in 2002 because of the ease with which such documents could be falsified and the fact that they did not provide sufficient proof of identity.

So what next for the pilots?

Once the pilots have been held the Electoral Commission will independently evaluate how they went. If the Government decides to roll out the changes to all local elections in England it must introduce secondary legislation, which will need to be approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Photo credit: Polling station, May 2016, by Tony KennickCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)