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The Dilemma of Voter ID Checks: For or Against?


On 3rd May 2018 across England voters went to the polls for the local elections. While it was business as usual in most areas, in five local authorities - Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Watford, and Swindon - a pilot voter ID scheme was trialled. Voter ID is a much debated and highly contentious issue and in this blog, we explore the arguments for and against voter ID.


Currently the electorate are only required to supply their national insurance number on registration in order to be able to vote. In the authorities trialling the new scheme, voters were required to prove their identity at the polling station by providing one or a combination of the documents listed. Findings from the scheme are set to inform the Government on whether or not to roll out mandatory Voter ID nationally.


In considering whether or not to opt for Voter ID, the democratic principle of free and fair elections is paramount. While there is no exact definition for this principle, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "the will of the people . . . shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures." Interestingly, the arguments of those in favour of Voter ID could be said to fixate on the notion of equal suffrage; whilst the arguments of those against Voter ID focus on the aspect of universal suffrage.


Arguments for voter ID


The central argument in support of voter ID checks is that this system tackles electoral illegalities. You may remember that back in 2015 the former mayor of Tower Hamlets Lutfur Rahman was found guilty of electoral fraud. The evidence demonstrated that he’d employed corrupt and illegal practices including ghost voting and ballot paper tampering.


As a consequence of this, and accusations of electoral malpractice amounting to around 150 in any given electoral year, former Secretary of State Sir Eric Pickles published a report into tackling electoral fraud and Voter ID was a key recommendation. More stringent voter identification checks are suggested to deter illegal interference. An issue once again brought to the fore in the last general election, when large numbers of students boasted of voting twice on social media.


While the reported scale of electoral fraud may seem insignificant, it is worth noting that in the 2017 general election, the SNP won North East Fife by only two votes. This serves to highlight that a small number of votes can affect the delicate balance of a Parliament and as such, influence the politics of the United Kingdom. Thus, the crux of the argument of those in favour of voter ID, is that it is a necessity to a functioning democracy.


Arguments against voter ID


The primary argument of those against Voter ID is that the need to provide identification represents a barrier that is likely to lock out legitimate voters. Possession of relevant ID is not universal, indeed “in the 2011 Census, 9.5 million people stated they did not hold a passport and in 2013/14 1.7 million lack even a bank account.” Elsewhere it has been argued that mandatory ID checks disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minority groups as well as those of low socioeconomic status; not only are these groups less likely to have the necessary identification, it is claimed they may also be less confident in their rights. The sum of these arguments is that the introduction of mandatory ID checks will discourage particular groups from voting and reduce voter participation by a democratically unacceptable degree.


Equal suffrage versus universal suffrage


Equal suffrage guarantees that each voter shall have the same number of votes, universal suffrage guarantees that almost all adults shall have the right to vote in elections. Electoral fraud undermines the former, while the unnecessary locking out of voters can be said to undermine the latter.


Where does this leave us? It seems to become a matter of balance. In this regard, it has been claimed that the number of people that could be prevented from voting by mandatory ID checks far exceeds the actual extent of electoral fraud. With reference to May’s pilot scheme, The Independent states that an estimated total of 4000 people were turned away from casting their vote in the five trial areas, this largely due to inadequate identification documents.


We would argue that it is difficult to make an accurate judgement. Regarding last weeks trial, Electoral Commission analysis will need to consider whether information about the required documents was sufficiently advertised, it may also be the case that as voters adapt to more stringent identification measures, the proportion of the population with relevant ID increases. Moreover, surely by its very nature, it is difficult to quantify the extent of electoral fraud. To use an analogy, one would imagine that the true extent of shoplifting far exceeds the prosecutions, and in the case of shoplifting, there is at least an explicit financial incentive to catch the perpetrators.


It remains an open question whether in the context of UK elections electoral fraud or mandatory ID checks would be the most democratically damaging, and we look forward to Electoral Commission analysis of the pilot scheme.


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