Alcohol, Gambling, Cigarettes and Voting?: Britain set to introduce photo ID for in-person voting

June 5, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The UK Government has announced planned legislation requiring British voters to show photo identification when voting in-person. Boris Johnson suggests this new system is to “protect democracy, the transparency and integrity of the electoral process”.

What does this mean?

Currently in the UK, the law does not require its citizens to carry ID, unlike in many European countries. Identification cards in the UK mainly come in the form of driving licences or passports, both of which cost money. Your average blue passport will set you back £75.50, while a provisional driving licence costs £34.

 The aim of the new system is to protect against personation – the offence of pretending to be somebody else to vote. Northern Ireland has imposed the requirement for voters to show ID since 1985 as personation was a widespread issue in the country. Other countries such as Canada, France and the Netherlands also operate a system which requires voters to show photo ID.

 This may be to quell the fears of voters. A 2019 poll found that 58% of Britons thought personation was a serious problem. When asked why they believed this to be the case, some said they heard about fraud in the media, others cited local rumours and a few said it was simply human nature. However, the figures show that in 2019, there were just 33 allegations of personation, one conviction, and one caution. This is out of an electorate of over 47m registered voters.

 Forms of photo accepted identification would include passports and driving licences, pensioners’ bus passes and blue badges held by disabled people. The Electoral Commission has also recommended other forms of ID to be added to the list such as military and police ID cards, as well as firearms licenses.

What's the big picture effect?

There are questions around whether the scheme is somewhat undemocratic, given issues regarding accessibility to photo identification. Studies show around 3.5m citizens in the UK, almost one-quarter of voters, have no access to photo ID. This barrier to voting could threaten the fundamental democratic value of allowing citizens to vote freely.

The proposed scheme raises ethical issues. For example, certain groups, such as women and Black people, are much less likely to have a driving licence. Likewise, Gypsies and Irish Travellers are much less likely than the average citizen to hold a passport. The changes could also disproportionately affect voters such as the disabled, elderly, young, and those on low incomes, who are also less likely to have access to photo ID.

 The Government plans to off-set this issue by introducing a form of identity document, “Voter Cards”, which voters can apply for free of charge. However, the cost of this scheme is estimated to be a whopping £40m in additional government spending over a decade, according to Labour. These cards would also have to be applied for before election day, meaning those who only choose to vote on the day may be disadvantaged.

Another concern is whether the scheme would deter people from voting. A House of Commons Library report has stated that “there has been no evidence that the ID requirements in Northern Ireland have affected turnout”. However, a 2019 pilot scheme may suggest otherwise. The pilot scheme of voter ID checks in 10 areas during the 2019 local elections in England revealed around 2,000 people were turned away at polling stations for lack of ID. Of those, 750 failed to return with ID.

 Weighing up the estimated costs of the new scheme, the discriminatory effects it may have, and the lack of electoral fraud convictions in the UK, is this new law really the best IDea?

Report written by Hannah Parker

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