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Voter ID: What does the new plan mean for voters?

The plan to have voters provide photo ID for future general elections has proven controversial. Here’s everything you need to know
Voters will need to show photo ID to cast their vote in future elections according to new plans. Image credit: Element5 Digital / Unsplash

The right to vote is the cornerstone of a democracy. That’s why plans to introduce the need for voters to provide photo ID in future elections have sparked controversy.

Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition demanding ministers put a stop to plans to introduce a voter ID requirement.

Around 3.5 million registered voters in the UK do not have photo ID, according to the Electoral Commission. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Hands Off Our Vote campaign showed the plans will hit the North of England hardest – including a number of marginal seats – where one in 14 people don’t have a form of acceptable ID, compared to one in 100 Londoners.

Boris Johnson denied accusations that the move would put off young voters who were less likely to vote against the ruling Conservative Party. He said: “What we want to do is protect democracy, the transparency and the integrity of the electoral process.”

Here’s everything you need to know.

What are the plans for voter ID?

Under new plans revealed at the Queen’s Speech, all voters will be required to show photo ID to cast their vote in future general elections.

Voters will be able to use a driving licence or passport – the two most common forms of photo ID – in new rules to be introduced as part of the forthcoming Elections Bill, previously called the Electoral Integrity Bill. People can also show concession travel passes, blue badge parking permits and cards from the proof of age standards scheme – many of which are costly and difficult to obtain – under the plans.

The government has said a scheme is being put in place for a free local electoral identity document to be made available for those who don’t have ID.

Speaking at the coronavirus press conference on May 10, the Prime Minister said the proposals would apply to “first-time voters” but a government spokesperson has since confirmed that he misspoke and they will apply to all voters.

What are the current rules?

There is currently no need to show photo ID at polling stations to cast your vote provided you have registered to vote in the election.

All you need to do is confirm your full name and address – or show your polling card, though this is optional – to cast your vote.

Photo ID is also not required for a postal vote or voting via proxy. People who are homeless, people in custody who have not yet been convicted of an offence and patients in mental hospitals can all vote by giving a proxy address.

Anyone aged over 18 can vote in a general election while 16 year-olds in Scotland and Wales can vote in their respective local and national elections – not long after being able to apply for a provisional photo driving licence at 15 years and nine months.

Why does the government want to bring in voter ID?

The government said the legislation will reduce the potential for voter fraud in the UK. It claimed “anecdotal” evidence of voters impersonating other people are “frequent”.

Ministers believe that forcing voters to show photo ID to back up the name and address on their polling card will prevent people voting fraudulently under someone else’s name.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “Showing ID to vote is a reasonable way to combat the inexcusable potential for voter fraud in our current system and strengthen its integrity.”

How much voter fraud is there?

Voter fraud is relatively minor in UK general elections.

More than 47 million people voted in the last general election in 2019 and there were 595 reports of voter fraud. Of these reports, only four led to a conviction and two individuals were given a police caution, according to the Electoral Commission.

That means there is a conviction for fraudulent voting for every 23.7m votes cast. That amounts to 0.000004 per cent of votes. 

Election fraud hit the headlines during the US elections last year following baseless allegations from then president Donald Trump. Compared to UK elections election fraud is higher in the US but is still incredibly rare. The New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center found Americans were more likely to be struck by lightning than encounter a fraudulent vote with between 0.0003 per cent and 0.0025 per cent votes cast illegally.

What reaction has the plan for voter ID received?

Celebrities, civil rights organisations and homelessness charities have condemned the plans, warning that the need to produce photo ID will essentially lead to a paywall to vote and exclude marginalised groups from voting.

Around 11 million people do not have access to a driving licence or passport, according to 2015 Electoral Commission research into the viability of voter ID. 

But the issue threatens to affect ethinic minority groups and homeless people more acutely.

Government figures show 74 per cent of people hold a full driving licence. White people are more likely than other ethnicities to hold a driving license.

By contrast, 40 per cent of Asian people, nearly a third of people of mixed ethnicity and more than half of Black people do not have a full driving licence.

Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, told The Big Issue tackling election fraud is “admirable” but support is needed to ensure ethnic minority groups do not miss out on their right to vote.

Begum said: “It is important to ensure that mechanisms are put in place to protect those most at risk of losing their right to vote, such as a drive to register eligible voters and ensure no delays in the provision of free photo ID documentation to those who currently do not have any.”

However, the UK Government hit back against this claim, pointing to IFF research, commissioned by the Cabinet Office, that found 99 per cent of ethnic minorities had a form of identification that would be accepted under our proposals alongside 98 per cent of people who identify as white.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson also told The Big Issue the IFF research shows that 98 per cent of electors already own a photographic document that is on the list of acceptable types of identification under the new voter ID policy mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.

“People’s ability to access [voting] easily is part of the reason why so many people do access it,” Freddie Mallinson, the 23-year-old behind the Hands Off Our Vote petition as a “shot in the dark” back in February, told The Big Issue. “Every single thing you do to make that more difficult has massive, wide-ranging effects. An extra half hour of bureaucratic nonsense makes it that much harder to go and vote and could easily mean hundreds of thousands miss out on their chance to have a say.”

MPs David Davis and Cat Smith have lended their support to the Hands Off Our Vote campaign. 

“I’m someone who learns and loves politics, and also someone who’s been in positions of social vulnerability myself,” said Mallinson, who has experience of being treated by psychiatric care services. “I understand how important it is that people get access to their democracy and this law disgusts me on every level.”

The Electoral Reform Society’s chief executive Darren Hughes said the plans will “lock millions out of the ballot box, skewing the system and deepening political inequalities” without a universal free ID scheme. The ERS have launched a petition against the plans. Hughes added: “We must not import US-style voter suppression to the UK.”

Photo ID is difficult for homeless people to acquire due to the cost and documents required to get a passport or driving licence. It is also hard to keep safe while living on the streets, according to Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes.

 “Making photo ID a requirement for voting risks excluding people who are homeless and compromising a basic human right,” Sparkes told The Big Issue.

“When you are living out of a rucksack, whether on the streets, in hostels or shifting between friends’ sofas, important documents like ID can frequently get lost or stolen. With replacement costly, it can cause people a lot of difficulty claiming benefits, accessing healthcare and opening bank accounts.” 

Celebrities have also spoken out against the plans from as diverse backgrounds as comedian Nish Kumar and television presenter Kirsty Allsopp. Kumar tweeted: “More cool policies from a government at war with poor people, people of colour and anyone who has the audacity to be both.”

Allsopp said she would need to see evidence of voter fraud before supporting the plan. She tweeted: “No one trusts us to do anything these days, but it feels like there is some bond between those that fought for my vote and me.” 

Has voter ID been tried before in UK elections?

Voter ID has been mentioned in a Queen’s Speech before – Boris Johnson’s administration included identical plans in the state opening of parliament following the 2019 General Election.

There have also been voter ID pilots in recent years. There were ten pilot areas across England at the 2019 general election. The trial saw 1,968 people turned away from polling stations for not having suitable ID. Some 740 returned later to vote – only 38 per cent of those were initially denied. The issue affected between 0.03 and 0.7 per cent of all votes cast in the local authority areas.

This followed trials at 2018 local elections when around a third of voters also returned to vote. 

How much will bringing in voter ID cost?

The Electoral Commission evaluated the costs of bringing in a voter ID scheme back in 2015.

The EC found that bringing in a voter card similar to the one used in Northern Ireland would cost between £1.8m and £10.8m per year to implement and promote.

The card would be free of charge for people who did not have other acceptable forms of photo ID, featuring the holder’s name and date of birth but would not contain any biometric information.

But ministers estimated this will cost nearly £18m per general election for councils, or another £40m out of the government’s budget, according to Labour.

How much does photo ID cost?

The cost of acquiring a photo ID can be prohibitive. 

A written application for a standard passport costs £85 and a postal application for a provisional driving licence amounts to £43.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson that “legislation will make clear that local authorities must provide a Voter Card free of charge to anyone who does need it”.

The government department also said that anonymous electors will be able to apply for an anonymous elector Voter Card should they wish to vote in person.

Are there free alternatives to photo ID?

The UK Government has said that plans are ongoing for a free local electoral document to be made available for people who do not have the photo ID needed to vote in elections.

CitizenCard represents an alternative photo ID option. The free card features a Home Office-endorsed Proof of Age Standards Scheme-hologram but is not as widely used as a driving licence or passport with 2.4 million CitzenCards issued since the scheme was launched in 1999.

In a previous voter ID pilot during 2018 local elections in Bromley, London, it was also possible to use a Freedom Pass – the card entitling over-65s to free public transport travel in London – to vote.

Voters could also use two forms of non-photo ID, such as a poll card, debit/credit card, bank statement or birth certificate, to act as ID. It has not been confirmed if this will be available in future elections.