Wednesday, 8 January, 2014

This morning the Electoral commission released a report recommending that voters be required to present ID before they are allowed to vote. The Electoral Commission’s report suggests that certain areas are greatly at risk of fraud and ID requirements are needed to prevent this. The first problem with this is that evidence the Electoral Commission uses to justify this change is shockingly flimsy. The second problem with this suggestion is that it penalises those it should protect, as at risk areas include many people living in poverty, people who are far less likely to own or carry a form of ID.

The Electoral Commission’s main justification for introducing voter ID is increased concern over electoral fraud and a fear of the UK electoral system losing its legitimacy. This highlights an ongoing, and worrying, decrease in trust in the UK, with fewer people trusting their neighbours than they did over thirty years ago. But as comparisons with the difference between perceptions of benefit fraud and the actual rate of benefit fraud have shown us, this lack of trust does not necessarily relate to an actual increase in fraudulent behaviour.

There is however a strong relationship between low levels of trust and income inequality with people in more equal countries being more likely to trust each other than people in countries like the UK with high levels of inequality. Further examining the Electoral Commission’s own research shows that voter ID laws may do little to address a lack of trust in the electoral system. The two areas of highest concern to the public for the UK were candidates breaking campaign promises and fraudulent activity by elected individuals. But rather than tackle the issues of mistrust for wealthy political representatives , the commission’s recommendations hit those at the bottom of the pile. 

A well-known feature of voter ID laws is that they disenfranchise poorer people. In the UK as in many other countries the most common forms of photo ID (Driver’s License and Passports) cost money and are needed only for high cost activities. A Driver’s License is only needed if you can afford to run a car, and a Passport is only needed if you can afford international travel.

A possible solution would be to issue a free photographic Electoral Identity Card (as is currently the case in Northern Ireland) but this does not get round this problem entirely. By making it harder to vote these rules will decrease the likelihood of those who are least attached to our political system to vote. A large body of evidence suggests that lower income groups are already less likely to vote and take part in other political activity whilst high income groups not only vote more but also use their money to influence politics in other ways. Introducing voter ID laws will only make our democracy less equal by decreasing the power of those at the bottom of the income spectrum and allowing the power of those at the top to go unchallenged.

Tim Stacey, Policy and Campaigns Officer