The Conservative government’s main policy priorities were announced in the Queen’s Speech as MPs returned to work after the election.
One controversial policy which was confirmed was the government’s plan to push through new requirements for voters in elections.
On election day, Ferret Fact Service highlighted that you do not need identification or a polling card to vote in Scotland, England or Wales, but the new policy could see identification required for all voters.
Voters will need “an approved form of photographic ID at a polling station in a UK parliamentary election in Great Britain” UK Government
Ferret Fact Service looked at the facts.
Currently, you do not need to bring anything to the polling station to vote in a general election in England, Wales or Scotland as long as you are registered to vote at the right address.
The Conservatives announced plans to change this during the last Queen’s Speech in October, and the policy was featured in their party manifesto for the general election.
It was trialled at this year’s council elections in England, with voters in ten areas required to show different combinations of photo identification, non-photographic ID and a polling card before they could vote.
Around 2,000 people were turned away at the polls for not bringing the correct ID, and around 750 of them did not return to vote. This was less than one per cent of those who voted in each polling station affected.
The policy outlined in the Queen’s Speech in December stated that voters would need “an approved form of photographic ID at a polling station in a UK parliamentary election in Great Britain and local election in England”. Those without IDs would be able to apply for a free “local electoral identity document”.
Why does the government want to bring in the photo ID requirement?
Ministers believe the current system, where a person needs to confirm their name and address before voting, is vulnerable to voter fraud. This is often called ‘personation’, which means assuming the identity of a different person to fraudulently vote. It should be noted this is not the same as proxy voting, where a person who cannot attend the polling station officially designates someone to vote for the candidate they want on their behalf.
This view is supported by the electoral commission, which stated in a 2014 report that “there should be a requirement for electors across Great Britain to present an acceptable form of identification prior to voting at the polling station”. This has been reconfirmed in recent reviews on the topic.
Photo identification is already required to vote in general elections in Northern Ireland, a move implemented in 2002.
Why is an ID requirement so controversial?
There are concerns that a requirement for voters to bring an identification may reduce voter turnout, and disproportionately affect certain groups in society.
There is evidence to suggest that strict voter ID rules affect marginalised groups. According to an Electoral Commission report approximately 3.5 million electors, or 7.5 per cent of the electorate, did not have access to photographic ID in 2013.
Certain forms of identification are less likely to be held by older people, while geography, sex and ethnicity also play a role in how likely you are to have photographic ID.
The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) suggests looking at one of the most common forms of photographic ID, the driver’s licence.
“White people are most likely to hold a driving licence out of all ethnic groups (at 76 per cent),” it argues.
“Followed by Asian people (62 per cent), while people identifying as mixed race (59 per cent) or Black (52 per cent) are the least likely to hold a driving licence”. These statistics are from the UK government using a five-year rolling average from 2013 to 2017.
The government has promised that a free ID card would be available from local councils on request, but the ERS suggests this “represents another barrier to voting that will put many off”.
How common is voter fraud?
Voter fraud is not particularly common, according to the number of reports during recent elections.
In 2017, one person was convicted for the crime of personation during the general election and English local elections. There were 63 alleged cases of personation in 2017, with 28 of these at polling stations.
The 2015 number was slightly higher at 64. Both years equate to a tiny proportion of the electorate.
In Scotland, 10 cases were investigated by police during the Scottish independence referendum.
While these figures do not include all crimes of personation, as not all crimes are reported to police, it appears that the problem is not currently significant.
When the plan for trialling voter ID was first announced by the UK government in 2017, it claimed that “reports of alleged electoral fraud through voter impersonation more than doubled between 2014 and 2016”. This is technically accurate, but misleading.
A rise from 21 cases in 2014 to 44 in 2016 was present in Electoral Commission figures, but the number of allegations then drops to 28 in 2017. It also represents a very small number, but gave “no indication of the prevalence of the issue and therefore the scale of the problem”.
The numbers of people who did not vote during the limited 2019 local elections trial because they could not provide ID at a polling station was significantly higher than the alleged cases of voter impersonation at the general election in 2017.
Perceptions of voter fraud
While examples of voter fraud remain very rare in UK voting, in recent years polling has shown the public regard it to be much more common.
An Electoral Commission survey after the independence referendum found 34 per cent of respondents believed fraud took place, with 12 per cent thinking it took place ‘a lot’.
During the 2019 local election trial, 14 per cent of those in pilot areas thought electoral fraud was taking place, compared with 26 per cent in non-pilot areas.
Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our Facebook group.
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