Voter ID: a nascent requirement sparking debate ahead of U.K. general election

Voter ID: A nascent requirement sparking debate ahead of U.K. general election

By: anna aleksandra sichova&
July 2 2024

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Voter ID: A nascent requirement sparking debate ahead of U.K. general election

(Steve Taylor/SOPA Images via Reuters Connect)

July 4 marks a significant milestone in the U.K.'s voting process: it will be the first general election in which voters must present a form of photographic identification (ID) at the polling station. Although the legislation has been in place since April 2022 and has applied to previous local and mayoral votes, the requirement to present ID to vote continues to engender debate, particularly surrounding risks to turnout and the disenfranchisement of certain voters.

Voter ID is also linked to a broader trend in misinformation surrounding electoral integrity, which encompasses other aspects of the electoral process such as postal voting and ballot tampering

As the general election approaches, Logically Facts examines common myths and misconceptions surrounding voter ID and debunks misinformation narratives swirling on social media in the run-up to the vote. 

Concerns over voter accessibility

The introduction of voter ID was initially posited by the Electoral Commission, following a 2014 report on electoral fraud that identified a potential risk to electoral security through impersonation. "There are currently few checks available to prevent someone claiming to be an elector and voting in their name," the Commission noted at the time. 

The Conservative government of the time subsequently made the introduction of voter ID a manifesto pledge in both the 2017 and 2019 elections. In 2022, the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson passed the Elections Act, which enshrined in law the requirement to provide photographic ID when casting an electoral vote.

Logically Facts previously published a detailed explainer about the specific requirements surrounding voter ID.

Prior to the 2023 local elections in England, which were the first to require voters to present photographic ID, concerns were raised that this requirement would disenfranchise certain groups less likely to possess accepted forms of identification. 

"Some voters are overall less likely to be aware of the requirements, particularly younger voters, BAME voters and again those who are poorer," explained Sophie Stowers, a researcher at think tank The UK in a Changing Europe. "LGBTQ+ people also reported concerns about using ID because of gender markers on their documents which may not match with how they present or otherwise identify."

During the May 2023 local elections, approximately 14,000 individuals — about 0.25 percent of voters attempting to cast their ballots at polling stations — could not do so due to the voter ID requirement. 

Accepted forms of ID include passports, driver's licenses, and certain age-specific cards like the 60+ Oyster card for senior citizens. However, the 18+ Student Oyster card is not accepted because the process does not require proof of age or address, highlighting a discrepancy that has raised concerns about potential age-based disenfranchisement. 

In response, the Electoral Commission published a 2023 post-local election report, which found that disabled people, the unemployed, people from ethnic minority communities, and younger age groups in deprived areas faced greater difficulty voting in the face of the photo ID requirements.

"We have worked with charities and civil society groups that represent those who may find showing ID or attending polling stations more challenging, to provide these groups with the information they need, in the form that they need it, to vote," the Electoral Commission told Logically Facts.

To further address such issues, the government also introduced the Voter Authority Certificate (VAC), a free voter ID document available to those without other accepted forms of identification.

The Electoral Commission told Logically Facts that the VAC is "crucial to ensuring the system's accessibility for everyone." The certificate is the main mechanism for ensuring equality among voters in different socioeconomic groups. From May 22, when the general election was announced, to June 26, when applications closed, over 60,000 U.K. voters applied for this certificate. The uptake suggests a significant effort by voters to comply with the new requirements. 

The role of presiding officers 

Despite these inclusory efforts, debate persists about the potential disenfranchisement of certain groups. One particular concern centers on whether ID photos will match voters' current appearances, especially for members of the LGBTQ+ community who may have undergone significant changes in their appearance. The Electoral Commission told Logically Facts that it has provided guidelines for polling station staff, instructing them to compare the shape of the face and the position of key features. If there's reasonable doubt about a match, voters can return later with a different, potentially outdated ID that better resembles their current appearance.

Polling station staff must ensure that the photographic ID includes a photo showing the voter's good likeness. The Electoral Commission informs Logically Facts that this involves comparing the shape of the face and the position of critical features (eyes, ears, nose) relative to the rest of the face. They may also look for distinguishing features such as moles or scars. If there is reasonable doubt that the photo matches the voter, the voter will be informed and asked to return later with an accepted form of ID that more accurately represents their current appearance, even if the ID is outdated. Local authorities will collect data on these instances and report it to the Commission after the poll.

The bigger picture

While some concerns over voter ID have their roots in legitimate trends of political dissonance and disenfranchisement among certain groups, others seize on the requirement to support false narratives around electoral fraud. One typical example is the claim that postal voting increases election fraud. 

No photographic ID is needed to vote by post, according to the Electoral Commission, although other identity details must be provided. "Voters needed to submit their full name, signature, date of birth and their National Insurance number for checking when applying for a postal or proxy vote under the new measures," the Commission told Logically Facts. "However, photo ID is not needed for applying to vote by post or proxy." 

Broader fraud claims around postal voting persist and have even been repeated by prominent political figures. In March this year, independent MP Jeremy Corbyn's wife, Laura Alvarez, asserted on X that "no one should trust post vote!".

(Screenshot: X)

Right-wing political party Reform UK also repeated the same claim in their election "contract", the term it uses to describe its manifesto. "Postal voting has allowed electoral fraud. We will stop postal voting except for the elderly, disabled, or those who can't leave their homes," the party claims. 

However, Electoral Commission data shows that electoral fraud is extremely rare in the U.K., with just 1,386 instances reported between 2018 and 2022. Most were not pursued due to a lack of evidence or were resolved at a local level. The Electoral Commission stated that voting by post is safe, and security measures are in place. Furthermore, the Commission noted that out of the 1,386 reports of alleged voter fraud cases between 2018 and 2022, only 70 were related to postal fraud. 

Stowers theorized that the discourse surrounding postal voting fraud is likely to have seeped in from the United States and reiterated that electoral fraud via this method is highly uncommon. "The issues we do have around post seem to be linked to logistics rather than the integrity of the process," she said. For example, the BBC reports that, with the election on the doorstep, some voters in Scotland have yet to receive their post-by-vote ballots, potentially not leaving sufficient time to return their votes by mail. Despite these reports, Royal Mail asserts "there is no backlog of postal votes.

A fringe issue, but concerns persist

Despite online claims doubting the integrity of elections, 81 percent of voters in England think voting is safe from fraud and abuse, indicating that false narratives around electoral fraud are broadly a fringe as opposed to a mainstream issue. Nevertheless, the repetition of such claims by prominent political figures risks dragging them into the limelight - especially if such politicians gain representation in government. The onus is therefore on organizations such as the Electoral Commission to provide timely, accurate, and transparent guidance and data on the prevalence of such issues, to refute false narratives, and to prevent them from gaining traction. 

The impact of voter ID on voter turnout and accessibility will be closely monitored in the coming election. The Electoral Commission told Logically Facts that it will collect data about the number of voters turned away from polling stations due to invalid or lacking ID during this general election and will put forward recommendations for the government on improving future election accessibility for voters in the U.K. 

"Many people have not voted at a local election since the rule was introduced in 2023, so haven't had a previous experience of using ID," said Stowers. "We're also seeing quite low levels of awareness of VACs and the deadlines to apply for one, and anecdotally I didn't see much push around this deadline from either party compared to reminders of the last day to register to vote. So I wouldn't be surprised if there is a larger percentage of voters citing ID issues as why they couldn't vote on July 4 compared to locals."

Follow Logically Facts' coverage and fact-checking of the U.K. Election here.

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