The Electoral Commission’s call yesterday (as predicted) that voters should have to show some sort of ID at polling stations before voting in future in Great Britain has a theoretical logic to it. However, elections are run not just in the world of theory but also in the real world, and there are some very major practical potential problems.
First, what sort of ID would be acceptable? Once you get beyond passport and driving license (and not everyone has one or the other) you quickly get into either having to set standards that are inconvenient or set standards which make forgery a possibility.
Second, what’s the financial cost? Not only of retraining staff and having to educate voters, many of whom have voted for decades without needing voter ID, but also the possibility of having to introduce a new special form of voter ID that people can apply for if they don’t have one of the approved forms of ID. (This is what had to be done in Northern Ireland.)
Third, what’s the impact on turnout? This is a big unknown and makes such a move a big risk.
Of course, if the gain is big enough – and having fair elections, protected against corruption, is a very big gain – then these costs could look bearable. But what is the Electoral Commission’s evidence on this? In its report making the recommendation, almost none – save for a public opinion poll saying that the public think having to show voter ID would reduce fraud. Which doesn’t really tell us anything as the question doesn’t address the vital related points of is there a problem and if there is, is this the best way to fix it?
Let’s look instead then at the Electoral Commission’s evidence from the 2012 elections, published in May 2013.
It shows that there were 80 alleged cases of personation.
Of those 80, only 25 involved allegations of someone pretending to be someone else at a polling station, the scenario their voter ID recommendation would address. Moreover, 19 of the 25 took place in just one location (Peterborough) and far more cases (46) related to postal voting. The other 9 related to proxy voting.
Based on this evidence, it’s hard to see what the evidence really is for introducing a major nationwide change in election rules that comes with such costs and risks as the Electoral Commission’s proposal.
Dealing with postal voting issues should be the much higher priority. So too should be considering having some areas identified as high risk (perhaps on the Electoral Commission’s judgement, following formal advice from the local police and returning officers), and then introducing extra safeguards just for those areas currently tagged as high risk. That would be the smart way of dealing with the way in which serious allegations of electoral fraud, especially of personation, are highly concentrated in a small number of places. Target the problem, don’t apply a sledgehammer to the whole country.
As for voter ID at polling stations across the country? Case not proven.