The Elections Bill introduced in 2021 includes a requirement for voters to show certain forms of ID when at a polling station. Voter ID laws are an unnecessary hindrance to the voting process, dissuading new voters and minority voters. There is little evidence of electoral fraud in the UK. Evidence from abroad shows that these laws often have an effect on voter turnout. Participation in the electoral system should be encouraged and aided, not blocked.
Impact on turnout
The proposal to introduce voter ID laws will have a disproportionate impact on underrepresented voters, as otherwise unnecessary pieces of identification are less commonly held by those from minority groups. Between 7.5-24% of the electorate do not hold a required form of ID, depending on how acceptable ID is categorised. Adding another step to the voter registration process, which should and does try to be a relatively painless process, risks dissuading many voters.
This proposed law would apply to all voters in general elections, as well as those going to the ballot box in English local elections. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that she would not introduce ID requirements in Scotland, which creates a complication given that local and national elections are regularly held at the same time. If voters believed they could not vote in any election without ID, they might not turn up on polling day, and lower turnout for Scottish local elections could be a side effect.
As well as reducing voter turnout by 1-2% in certain American states, studies have found that it also leads to lower voting turnout by voters who incorrectly believe that they have the wrong form of ID. Thus, the appearance of formal barriers has the consequence of making voting seem like an intimidating and difficult process.
The holding of ID often has trends which correlate to racial background, socioeconomic class, and profession. As these factors often align with voting direction, there are also certain correlations between the holding of ID and the party voted for. Take drivers’ licenses for example. There is an association between holding a driver’s license and voting patterns (not holding: 57% Labour, 27% Conservative voting).
The over-estimated problem of voter fraud
The UK does not have a significant problem with voter fraud and, as such, this proposed law is a distraction from the issue of voter turnout and political education. Reported incidence of election fraud is low, and prosecution lower still; many instances are resolved locally without further action required. The proposed ID checks are countering a problem that hardly exists, and will only negatively impact turnout in the groups that already struggle with high turnout (first time voters being a significant one). It will cost an extra £40m in election expenses, money that could be better used to encourage higher levels of voter registration.
Again, America tells a cautionary tale. The US has seen similar attempts involving the requirement of voter ID checks, many of which have been struck down in the courts as restrictive or targeted, and many states have seen countless problems during elections stopping potential voters from casting their votes. The proposals in the UK are likely to create serious and harmful effects that are greater than the supposed problem they are seeking to resolve.
The US has received criticism on an international level for its restrictive voting laws and voting rights violations. If the UK goes ahead with measures that hinder the ease of voting then it will rightfully receive similar international attention and assessment for such a move.
Mathilda Walters is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford. She works in political fundraising and campaigning.