Case study : The Electoral Reform Society and voter ID

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) describes itself as a ‘leading voice for democratic reform’. It campaigns to reform politics through two main goals:

1 To have public authorities in the UK elected by proportional representation and specifically by the single transferable vote in multi- member constituencies.

2 That the democratic institutions of the UK, its nations and regions and other constituent parts work in ways that lead to citizens having high levels of trust in them.

In June 2021 the government introduced legislation that would require voters to show voter ID in polling stations for UK parliamentary elections, local elections in England and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. The requirements would not apply at Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru elections, nor local council elections in Scotland and Wales.

The types of ID required include passports, driving licences, PASS scheme and Blue Badge cards, and some travel passes. People without existing photo ID are able to apply for a free voter card from their local council to use in the polling station. Opposition parties, particularly Labour, the Scottish National Party and many notable civil liberties groups, opposed the legislation on the grounds that the crime of pretending to be someone else when you vote is rare, and that the introduction of voter ID is an excessive measure likely to disproportionately affect already marginalised groups.

In 2021 the ERS criticised the government’s legislation as ‘an expensive distraction’ and ‘a sledgehammer to crack a nut’. It explained that unlike in many parts of mainland Europe where everyone has a mandatory national ID card, in the UK many citizens — those who cannot afford to go on foreign holidays (so have no specific need for a valid passport) or cannot drive (so have no access to photographic ID) — are disadvantaged. The ERS asserted that:

Evidence from around the world shows that forcing voters to bring photographic ID to the polling station just makes it harder for people to vote – while doing little to increase faith in the integrity of the system. We don’t need to spend millions to put up barriers to people taking part in our democracy.

The ERS campaigned to highlight several issues with the government’s proposals, notably that:

  • The government’s own commissioned research found that those with severely limiting disabilities, the unemployed, people without qualifications and those who had never voted before were all less likely to hold any form of photo ID.

  • The government’s own figures suggest the scheme will cost up to an extra £20 million per general election.

  • Voting is already safe and secure in Britain:

  • – First, public confidence in the running of elections is high. According to the Electoral Commission’s latest tracker of public opinion, 80% of people are confident that elections are well run, 87% said voting in general is safe from fraud and abuse, and 90% said that voting at the polling station is safe. – Second, there are extremely low levels of electoral fraud in the UK. In 2019, there were just 33 allegations of impersonation at the polling station, out of over 58 million votes cast.