Politics

Exclusive: Councils are rejecting one in 18 applications for the government’s new free voter ID

The Big Issue has found hundreds of applications for voter authority certificates have been rejected, sparking "deep concern" and fears of "distorted results"

voter ID

The elections act passed among widespread protest, with warnings about voter suppression. Image: Alisdare Hickson/flickr

One in 18 applications for the government’s free form of voter ID have been rejected by councils, sparking fears of distorted results in Thursday’s local elections, The Big Issue has found.

Several councils have rejected around 15 per cent of applications for the new voter authority certificate, introduced to allow those without valid ID to vote, while one local authority rejected over a quarter of the applications it received.

Just 86,000 of an estimated 2 million without proper photo ID applied for the new voter authority certificate (VAC). But data obtained from councils through freedom of information requests has revealed hundreds of rejected requests, and shown even those who applied are not guaranteed to be able to vote.

Tom Brake, a former Lib Dem MP and now director of Unlock Democracy, said the rejections could risk influencing results.

“The Big Issue’s excellent investigative work confirms that the photo voter ID story is even worse than expected. We already knew the take up of the government’s alternative photo voter ID scheme was appallingly low. Now we also know that for those who did apply, a relatively high percentage have had their applications rejected,” Brake said.

“With council election results often hanging on a handful of votes, it is unavoidable not only that the introduction of photo voter ID will depress turnout, but also distort election results.”

The Big Issue sent requests to 230 councils holding local elections on Thursday, which will be the first elections in England requiring photo ID.

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In response to our requests for information, 76 councils provided The Big Issue with data – some with a cut-off point of early April, others from right up to the April 25 deadline. In total, councils provided data on 16,000 applications – around one in six of the total applications submitted.

Overall, 889 applications, or 5.55 per cent, were rejected.

But the rejections were unevenly spread. Some councils did not reject a single application, despite receiving hundreds. Others rejected around one in six.

The most common reasons for rejections included issues with submitted photographs, applicants not being registered to vote in the first place, and applicants not submitting their national insurance numbers.

Lichfield District Council, just north of Birmingham, rejected a quarter of the 83 applications it had received at the time it responded to our request. For Bracknell Forest that proportion was 17.5 per cent, and for Charnwood the figure was 17.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, Sefton Council told The Big Issue it had rejected none of the 533 applications it had received at the time of its response. However, it had 29 applications on hold whose applicants were yet to respond to follow-ups.

Southend-On-Sea City Council rejected none of the 272 applications it received, but had eight on hold and awaiting further details at the time of responding.

While the data is a snapshot – and official figures on rejections are expected to come after the election – it provides an insight into the process of obtaining a VAC.

Not everybody needs photo ID to vote, however. Those voting by post or proxy do not need photo ID, and by extension have no need to apply for a VAC.

The findings have been branded “deeply concerning” by the Electoral Reform Society.

“For many voters who lack photographic ID the voter authority certificate is their only route to being able to cast a vote in this week’s elections. To find that the application process has such a high rate of rejection in some areas is deeply concerning,” said Jess Garland, director of policy and research, Electoral Reform Society.

“We have repeatedly warned that many voters will be turned away but now we see that many are unlikely to even make it to the polling station having been rejected for the necessary ID.

“With the government putting so many hurdles up between voters and the ballot box, it’s clear that these new voter ID rules remain a threat to democratic participation and free and fair elections.”

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However, the Local Government Association said councils had a responsibility to make sure the introduction of voter ID was done in a rigorous way.

“Councils are working around the clock to deliver the local elections and the new voter ID requirements, which is the biggest change to in-person voting in 150 years,” a spokesperson told The Big Issue. 

“There are many reasons a voter authority certificate could be rejected and councils assess each application based on the guidance they have been given by the Electoral Commission. As well as this, we are aware that some applications have been made by postal voters who do not require voter ID and so have been withdrawn. 

“It is vital that the implementation of voter ID, including the VAC application process, is rigorously and transparently evaluated to ensure that lessons are learned ahead of future elections.”

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