The Conservatives are keen to introduce identity checks at polling stations before people vote. So much so, that pilots are being carried out for this May’s elections in some places.
Which prompts the question, why?
You might think, ‘ah, because identity checks are a sensible security precaution’. However, the incidence of voter fraud caused by people being impersonated at polling stations has been so low than even the Eric Pickles’s report which talked up the risks of it found almost no actual evidence.
Similarly, new evidence about how many people voted more than once in the 2017 elections shows that despite the many claims made on social media, almost no such fraud actually took place:
Hundreds of complaints about alleged double voting in the 2017 UK general election resulted in only one conviction, according to police data.
Claims made on social media that people had voted twice prompted more than 1,000 emails to the Electoral Commission and 60 letters from 47 MPs.
But only one person was convicted after pleading guilty to multiple voting.
He was fined. Two cases resulted in no further action and one was deemed not in the public interest to prosecute.
A fifth case remains under investigation. [BBC]
There are certainly some high-risk areas where additional measures to tackle fraud would be wise. Tower Hamlets, for example. But what the Conservatives are pushing for is blanket introduction of identity checks.
Those checks are not cost-free. They come with a literal cost, as checking identities requires trained staff, clear systems – and a way for people without a passport or driving license to be able to securely demonstrate their identity. (The Electoral Commission estimates that just under one in four voters do not have either a passport or photographic driving license.)They also come with a democratic cost – because a common pattern across democracies is that the harder you make it for people to vote, the fewer people who vote – and that the drop off is concentrated amongst the least well-off or least educated.
All of which means it’s only sensible to introduce ID checks if there’s a really good reason to do so. The paucity of evidence about fraud which such checks would stop suggests there isn’t such a good reason. As does the logic of planning out how you would rig an election by impersonation other people: doing so at scale and without being caught by existing safeguards would be far from easy. Which also points to the question of why not put the time and money into other, lower cost high return, ways of improving how our elections work?
So why are the Conservatives so keen? They can point to the Electoral Commission’s views on the matter, but are also more than happy enough to ignore the Electoral Commission when it suites. Without a convincing answer to that question, it’ll hardly be unreasonable for people to assume a cynical answer.
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