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by Louise Wilson
06 June 2023
Voter ID: What is it and why are people mad about it?

Voter ID: What is it and why are people mad about it?

Voters had to show ID before being able to vote in the local government elections in England for the first time last month. Holyrood takes a closer look.

What is voter ID?

A requirement for voters to provide photographic ID before being given a ballot paper. It was introduced in the UK under the Elections Act 2022 and came partially into force at the start of May, in time for the local government elections in England.

Why was it brought in?

A 2014 report by the Electoral Commission recommended it. Despite finding no evidence of widespread electoral fraud, the Commission concluded the lack of such a requirement was an “actual and a perceived weakness” of UK elections. It was later included in the Conservative manifesto and pilots were ran in council elections in England in 2018 and 2019.

Will I need ID to vote?

The legislation currently only applies to English council elections and Westminster by-elections – so voters in, for example, Rutherglen and Hamilton West will need to provide ID if a by-election does indeed take place there in the coming months.

But the legislation will likely have come into force for the whole UK for the next general election. It will apply from October this year, and so for any Westminster election in 2024 you will need to take your driving license, passport or other photo ID to the polling station.

The Scottish Government, meanwhile, has said it has no intention of bringing in voter ID for the elections it has responsibility for. In a paper about the Elections Act, it said: “The Scottish Government considers that there is no evidence of significant electoral fraud to justify voter ID measures in Scotland.” That means you won’t need to take ID to vote in the next Holyrood or Scottish council elections.

Why do people oppose it?

Because electoral fraud is uncommon, opponents of voter ID argue the biggest impact will actually be to disenfranchise legitimate voters. Claiming it is a voter suppression tactic, they argue the people least likely to have ID are those from poorer backgrounds, including disabled people. The UK Government has introduced Voter Authority Certificates, available for free for those without an existing form of ID, but there are questions about how well publicised this has been.

The Electoral Reform Society also argues that voter ID will do little to increase people’s confidence in the electoral system.

So did it impact turnout?

News outlets did report people being turned away from polling stations at the English council elections, either for not having ID or having the wrong type of ID. Some of them returned, while others did not. The SNP said it was “deeply troubling” that some people were unable to vote. Kirsty Blackman MP said: “One person being denied their right to vote is one too many and this could pose a serious threat to the upcoming general election.”

Speaking at the recent National Conservatism conference, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed the change had “made it hard for our own voters” at the local elections as many elderly people – who typically lean Conservative – did not have ID. He said: “Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID.”

There is a legal duty on polling station staff to record the number of people turned away, which will be used by the UK Government to assess any impact on turnout. However, the Electoral Commission has warned this may not reveal the true scale of any problem as it would not include those who were told they would not be able to vote outside polling stations.

The earlier pilots were inconclusive in this front, too. The Commission said there had been no direct impact on turnout in the 2018 pilots, but in 2019 turnout was down between two and six percentage points. However, turnout across the 2019 council elections was down two percentage points overall and could therefore be attributed to other factors, not necessarily voter ID.

Will there be more changes?

According to The FT, ministers are toying with widening the list of acceptable forms of ID. Insiders said the current list was restricted to ensure it did not overwhelm polling station staff for the English council elections, given it was the first election ID checks would be performed. Tory officials are now saying that if turnout is shown to have fallen (official figures will be published by the Electoral Commission soon), the list will be expanded for subsequent elections.

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