Compulsory Voter ID – sensible security measure or deliberate disenfranchisement?

Did you know that the Government has a manifesto commitment to bring in compulsory ID for Parliamentary elections?  They plan to require us to show some sort of ID before we are issued with our ballot paper in a polling station. 

The idea was piloted in five Boroughs in the recent council elections, and the Government is now looking for pilot sites for next May’s elections. The Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission have both published evaluations of the pilots. There is also an excellent report from the Electoral Reform Society setting the issue of voter ID in the context of other priorities for electoral reform.

I took part in a project, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd, to find out how voters experienced these pilots.  We contacted Lib Dem and Labour campaigners in the five Boroughs and asked them to survey their residents and to give us their own views. We received responses from 21 campaigners and 329 residents from four of the five Boroughs (Woking, Bromley, Watford & Swindon). We also held a fringe meeting at Federal Conference, where Peter Taylor, the Liberal Democrat Mayor of Watford, spoke about the Watford experience.  

The Five Pilots

The five Boroughs piloted different approaches: Woking, Bromley and Gosport tested various forms of photo ID requirement, although in Bromley and Gosport two forms of non-photo ID were also allowed; Swindon and Watford piloted a requirement to bring a poll card which was electronically scanned, with Watford also allowing other ID in the absence of a polling card.

Voters Turned Away

The Electoral Commission evaluation states that, according to the Returning Officers, 1,036 people attempted to vote without the correct ID, and that between 326 and 350 did not return later in the day, an average of 0.23% of all polling station voters.  The “did not return” rate varied between councils, with 57% of those initially turned away not returning in Woking (where the ID requirements were strictest) and about 27% not returning in Bromley and Watford. 

Campaigners in our survey gave some examples: 

“A gentleman  with a Surrey Senior Bus Pass was refused a vote because his Bus Pass had two names and apparently his name on the Electoral Register contained an additional name”. (Campaigner from Woking)

“I heard of …one person turned away despite having a digital copy of a bank statement, he was told to go home and print the statement out.” (Campaigner from Bromley) 

Voters put off due to the need for ID

In our survey, we also asked about voters who were put off, and never got as far as the polling station. 88 people (27%) said they had been, or knew someone who had been, put off from voting because of the need to provide ID. This was higher in Woking and Bromley where photo ID was required than in the “poll card” pilot areas. Examples of comments from residents were: 

“I didn’t vote because I left my house without the correct ID and instead of being turned away, I simply didn’t go to the polling station. First time I haven’t voted in 20+ years.” (Bromley)

I am a resident of over 20 years and was unable to vote as I don’t have photographic ID and don’t have time to go through the lengthy process of getting it. (Woking)

The Electoral Commission survey found that, overall, 2% of respondents who did not vote said it was because they did not have the right identification. This also varied from Borough to Borough, with no respondents in Watford or Swindon (the poll card pilots) giving lack of ID as the reason for not voting. (This compares with 27% of people who said they were too busy, 23% not interested or didn’t know who to vote for, and 12% on holiday).  

Awareness of the need for Voter ID 

In our survey, fewer than 4% of respondents were not aware that they needed to take ID with them to vote. However we received some comments which indicate that those with disabilities, the elderly or who already find it difficult to vote were less aware. A campaigner from Swindon said:

Yes problem with partially sighted people who had failed to be made aware of the scheme. I have advised the person to get a postal vote”

Implications for 2019 Pilots

Firstly, we saw some indications that compulsory voter ID was more off-putting for those with disabilities, the elderly or those who already find voting difficult to vote. The Cabinet Office should test this further in any 2019 pilots.

Secondly, the different types of ID had different impacts. Woking trialled the narrowest range of acceptable photo ID and those without it were required to apply for a special card. Voters in Woking reported more difficulty across a range of issues than the other areas. Next year, the Cabinet Office should test an even wider range of acceptable ID, such as verifying signature and date of birth. 

Is Voter ID a good idea? 

In our survey, 58% of respondents said they thought ID for voting was a good idea. Of these, 63% said it should be photo ID.  In Watford, the Electoral Commission interviews suggested that 15% of people thought that electoral fraud was a problem or a serious problem in January 2018, which dropped to 9% after the elections in May. 

Conclusion – towards a Liberal Democrat policy

As Liberal Democrats, we believe that every vote counts, and that everyone should have confidence in our electoral system. We know that there is much to improve, and voter ID wouldn’t be our top priority for electoral reform. The 2018 pilots have highlighted some issues that need to be addressed in any further round of pilots – we will see if they are. 

But if the Government decide to find legislative time, we’ll need to be ready. Public opinion is generally in favour, and the pilots have indicated where the pinch points might be.  As far as I have been able to find out, the Liberal Democrats don’t have a stated policy position on the issue.  It would be good to start by having a debate.

* Janet Grauberg is a Lib Dem campaigner in Camden, north London, and a freelance consultant.

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  • Surely the Lib Dem policy should be based on the fact that personation fraud is a complete non-issue – you can see that clearly in the statistics with a literal handful of allegations (those disenfranchised in the pilot areas dwarf national allegations of personation fraud) as well as common sense: it’s a highly risky (~65% chance of being busted on average) and resource intensive (you can only carry out 1 fraud at each polling station) method of electoral fraud.

    The focus on “tackling” this non-issue means that no effort is being spent tackling the real problems of flouting of electoral finance laws and postal voting fraud. More importantly is will disenfranchise many of the most disadvantaged in our society and those who forget their ID when they go out to vote.

    It’s disappointing the Lib Dem’s appear to be buying into this solely because of the success of Tory propaganda in convincing the public personation fraud is a massive issue

  • Thanks Janet for this very methodically produced article

    I’m in favour of some sort of ID (even if it’s a polling card or bank statement/utility bill) and this article makes me believe it is overall a good thing. Voter ID check is standard across much of Europe

  • William Fowler 21st Oct '18 - 9:21am

    How many people are aware that local authorities cross check voters ID with the Works and Pension database before they are allowed to vote (without asking for the voter’s permission, the only time they find out is when the cross check fails and their NI no. is demanded)?

    No problem with the above EXCEPT that NI no, DOB, full voters name and address are then added to the voters register database and are searchable even if you tick the box for not being on the public (open) database – searchable by various dodgy internet companies for a small fee. This happened several years ago and coincided with a large increase in ID theft! This database is there so councils can make money out of voter’s details and finance companies can check them out with no easy option to avoid this if you want to vote.

    Even more annoying, MPs and various VIPs are registered on the anonymous register that can only be searched by the police etc… Joe Public can get on this register but only with a court order.

    So let’s have voter ID but with no connection to a database that can be searched by anyone other than the police etc.

  • I’m with Pete (21st Oct ’18 – 9:09am) on this…. As with the ‘supposed’ massive abuse of the ‘benefits system’, putting costly time and effort into searching for ‘motes’ allows the ‘beams’ to escape detection.

    Those most likely to be adversely affected are those at the bottom end of society; the fact that these are the least likely to vote Tory explains the government’s fascination with the matter.

  • OnceALibDem 21st Oct '18 - 1:51pm

    “I’m in favour of some sort of ID (even if it’s a polling card or bank statement/utility bill)”

    None of these are forms of ID (and in latter cases are becoming increasingly less common for people to have other than downloaded documents). Would a polling clerk be au fait with what every one of the 37 Utility companys statements look like?

  • John Marriott 21st Oct '18 - 6:34pm

    As they were supposed to say in a Northern Ireland; “Vote early – and vote often!” Seriously, though, I ‘d go for an official ID card; but I guess that’s too ‘illiberal’ for most LDV contributors. If it’s all about increasing voter turnout, why can’t they switch polling to a Sunday, as in many countries not that far from here? Mind you, bringing in PR might help as well. I’d also limit eligibility for a postal vote to help counter voter fraud, which undoubtedly happens around the country.

  • Mick Taylor 21st Oct '18 - 6:36pm

    The reason very little evidence of voter fraud exists is that you need £20,000 on the table before an electoral court will consider your grievance. Even when there is clear evidence of electoral fraud, as in a carefully researched report into the actions of the Labour Party in Leeds over postal voting by the Sunday Times, no action is taken.
    We lost an election by just over 100 votes in a ward in Leeds. We worked out that the activity by a load of Labour students in one polling district wasn’t to find out who HAD VOTED, but to find out who HAD NOT VOTED so that personation could take place. Of course without a handy £20k we couldn’t top to court, but I did ask the returning office er if any pink ballot papers had been issued and was told 5 had been. How many readers of LDV even know what a pink ballot paper is, never mind taking part in an election where they are issued? A pink ballot paper is issued when a voter comes to vote and is told they have already voted. If they insist they have not voted they are issued with a pink ballot paper to vote on. This vote is then put into a separate envelope and only used if the election is challenged. It isn’t definite proof of personation, but it is a good indicator. Now if five people were caught out it suggests to me that many more were not. 20 students each voting 6 times covers the Labour majority. I have been in politics since 1964 and that election in 2009 was the only one I ever had pink voting papers issued.
    Electoral fraud is a tricky issue, but to assume it’s minimal given the difficulties of getting it into court, is not a sensible course of action.
    As to voter ID, we do seem to be making a dog’s breakfast of the issue. Almost every other EU country and loads of other countries around the world require some form of voter ID. What we need to do is to come up with a simple. but sound method of ID that can be issued FoC to voters to ensure that our elections really are free of fraud.

  • Tony Greaves 21st Oct '18 - 7:02pm

    As a minimum people must be able to get a (free of charge) voting ID from their local council. Otherwise there is clear discrimination against people who do not possess the kind of ID required.

    We are going to have a polling station pilot in Pendle next May, forced through by the Tories, in spite of the fact that the endemic voter fraud in parts of the Borough is about postal and proxy votes, not polling station personation.

    As an aside, the last time I had to provide photo ID at a bank I offered my parliamentary pass. “Sorry, not on the list”.

  • This kind of thing sort of reminds me of those old war films set in Germany or the Eastern Block where people are asked to show their papers. Tracked on-line, filmed every two yards of a high street, demands to see ID and what not. It’s all getting a bit repressive.

  • Margaret Joachim 21st Oct '18 - 8:04pm

    The words ‘thin’, ‘wedge’ and ‘end’ spring to mind. Whoever represents the party at meetings of the Electoral Commission (which is where these ideas get discussed) has to remember our absolute opposition to identity cards.

    Tony is in good company. The photograph-bearing cards which allow me to read priceless 13th-century illuminated manuscripts at Lambeth Palace Library and handle hundred-year-old specimen sheets in the Herbarium at Kew Gardens are apparently not valid for identification either.

  • Peter Chapman 22nd Oct '18 - 7:19am

    A few years ago when a defector joined us from the Labour Party from the Asian Community one of the first things he said to me was “when do you collect the poll cards?”
    Personation is so widely practiced in some wards in Luton that it is pointless us competing in them (as is postal vote collection). At least individual voter registration means that they have to work harder creating ghost voters rather than list them on one form

    Neither the police or the local authority are interested or have the resources to put to this problem

    Liberal Democrats who do not campaign in areas like ours do not understand the level of hidden corruption that takes place and the barriers the local “establishment ” put up against any real investigation

  • Rita Giannini 22nd Oct '18 - 8:09am

    I admire the unrelenting opposition of liberals to ID cards, but I am afraid it is becoming one of those quirky behaviors for which British people are known. If the UK had ID cards, and requested EU citizens to register when they entered the UK for work purposes, like most EU countries do, maybe Brexit wouldn’t have happened. We have cameras all over the place and you are still arguing about having an ID card? Mah…..

  • William Fowler 22nd Oct '18 - 8:49am

    Already, the passport and driving license systems are linked so that is probably an existing system that could be extended to issuing ID cards, made scannable they could then be checked at the polling station to eliminate fake cards… all a bit Big State but huge databases containing people’s details are widespread and easily accessible by all kinds of crooked companies so in that context it is more important to stop fake voting than anything else. Based nationally rather than at council level it is another department that could be closed in councils, saving some money (if they are doing nothing to stop fake voting they deserve to be closed down). Next step would be electronic voting via mobile or computer which might increase turn out and allow for a Swiss style multiple referendums on serious issues, taking lots of power away from politicians.

  • I think that quite a lot of things get mixed up in this. The first is to get some idea of the scale of the problem. My feeling is that there are a few areas in the country where voter fraud is a problem but probably not in 95%+ – and more to do with postal votes. If so, I suspect the first line to tackle it should be greater scrutiny by the police and the authorities and it should be easier to launch election petitions etc. I think the number of tendered (pink) ballots issued should also be published as an indication of where there might be a problem.

    Overall I think we should be weary of Tory attempts to make it more difficult to vote – they are reminiscent of Republican efforts in the US. And it is pretty clear that those will be affected and stymied in the legitimate efforts to vote are the less well-off.

    Many people may actually have very little ID. Increasingly people do not get paper bank statements, utility bills may be in one person’s name only, not everyone has a driving licence or passport. There was in the pilots the ability to get a “voting identity paper” from the local council – but this is of course a major hassle. (And those didn’t require photo id allowed poll cards.)

    My first vote was when I was a student and I was on the register at two addresses so I voted where it counted most for the Lib Dems. But for example I had my driving licence was at my permanent address and probably didn’t have enough ID to qualify to vote at my student address (a hall of residence – so no council tax, utility bills etc.) As I travelled 70 miles to vote, getting voting id from the council would have involved some 300 miles of travelling.

    I think we should be weary. This is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We should start with the issues raised around postal voting and also making prosecutions and investigations easier.

  • Jayne Mansfield 22nd Oct '18 - 10:25am

    @ John Marriott,
    I agree with everything that you say in your post. Having worked in areas where political corruption is endemic, as a feminist, I have become disenchanted with ‘liberalism’, because it is usually women who have been disenfranchised by this corruption.

    Political corruption from whatever source needs to be tackled head on. The wrongdoers in any particular ‘community’ bring the whole community into disrepute, and that is unfair.

    @ Rita Giannini,
    Well said.

  • I’m with Michael 1 on this. There’s lots of claims but scant evidence of any big problem.

  • John Probert 22nd Oct '18 - 11:00am

    Unless the ID includes the name and a photo or other biometric data it won’t be foolproof. Let’s see what the legislation proposes.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Oct '18 - 11:23am

    “There’s lots of claims but scant evidence of any big problem.”

    What formal evidence there is more concerns postal vote fraud e.g. Woking BC 2012, – regrettably involving a LibDem – and Birmingham 2005 and the Tower Hamlets mayoral election case – for the latter 2 cases see

    I believe John Hemming has done a lot of work over the personation problem in his area – and note from his comment above that the legal system doesn’t appear adequate – especially the very limited time allowed to get an election petition going.

    Shouldn’t we fix the legal problems first – like allowing a much longer period for getting an election petition so there is time to acquire the evidence, getting the police to treat perversion of the democratic process seriously and handing out seriously draconian penalties (prison) for those found guilty?

    Because when considering ID cards and other technological forms of identity – none of them is ever going to be totally secure and fraud-proof – and the public sector is as bad as the private sector for letting the bad guys get at personal data (and for not taking the issue seriously).

    And at the end of the day who guards the guardians? Do I trust the state with my personal data any more than I do the private sector (i.e. not a lot)? Frankly – no.

  • There is more on the electoral reform society website at

    It reports “Out of 44.6 million votes cast in 2017, there was one conviction resulting from the 28 allegations of in-person voter fraud – that’s 0.000063%.”

    Photo id would be a major barrier to voting. ERS reports: “In the 2011 Census, 9.5 million people stated they did not hold a passport, 9 million do not have a driving licence and in 2013/14 1.7 million lack even a bank account.”

    A democracy absolutely must allow everyone – and all sectors of society – to have the same ability to vote. Clearly this would not be the case with photo id.

    Mandatory photo id cards are a different argument (and I am strongly against) but they don’t exist today.

    It would be I suspect reasonably easy to fake very high quality poll cards and paper id such as utility bills, council tax bills etc. And it will actually have little effect unless the police do actually effectively investigate and prosecutions, investigations and election petitions etc. are easier. Let’s start with that and not put barriers in the way of our fellow citizens voting.

  • The Government estimates that it will cost up to £20 million PER election for voter id. It strikes me that money could be spent in much better ways to combat the problem.

    Firstly to the police, election administrators, and others to investigate the problem. Secondly for video equipment by the polling clerks’ desk so that it was apparent if the same person had turned up at two polling stations (other than for proxy votes). £20 million is £400 for each of the 50,000 polling stations so would I suspect more than cover the cost – and it would be essentially a ONE-OFF cost as well.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Oct '18 - 3:13pm

    What about a law demanding every dog undergoes a violence check annually as part of a registration process? Laws must be proportional to the risk and voter ID is disproportionate. We must make voting easier and ensure fraud does not become excessive.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Oct '18 - 3:40pm

    Voter ID is a disproportionate regulation that does nothing to address increasing voter participation. We should be aiming for at least 80% voting in general elections. We should be instead exploring methods of achieving this such as weekend voting while keeping an eye on voter fraud.

  • nvelope2003 22nd Oct '18 - 4:52pm

    I seem to recall canvassers boasting that they had voted in by elections although they had no right to do so. ID cards are a necessity in the modern world. I know everything can be forged but how else can you check ? Not everyone has a passport or driving licence and should not be put in a position where they have to obtain one. Bus passes are not accepted but could be designed so they could be. Even Security passes for government departments are not accepted though maybe that is right.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Oct '18 - 9:41pm

    There are many ostriches on this thread. Pretend there isn’t a problem and then we don’t need a solution. Personation happens, more in some places than others, but it happens far more widely than the court cases show. To prove it is difficult for two reasons:
    1. The cost of going to court (circa £20k just to start)
    2. The need to get electors to go to court and give evidence. The experience in Leeds was that voters refuse to go to court even if the abuse is widespread.
    I accept that problems exist in finding a suitable vehicle for voter ID, but perhaps we should be thinking about how best to achieve it, not opposing it because we don’t believe fraud exists.

  • Mick
    It happens far more widely than the court cases suggest because people who believe it does assert it does?

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd Oct '18 - 10:55pm

    If I hear that “only 28 cases of personation” argument again, I think I may scream. It’s abundantly obvious that the number of convictions for personation might be low for reasons quite unconnected to the actual incidence of the problem.

    However. Any attempt to deal with voter personation whilst all parties continue to support the massive extension of postal voting, with absolutely no meaningful proof of ID of the person voting (go on, say the word “signature” in this context – there will be more screaming), let alone any way to ensure or even encourage the secrecy of the ballot, is so obviously focusing on a mote and ignoring a beam that it is hard not to be cynical about motives.

    Is it too cynical to suggest that Tory voters might be particularly keen to use postal voting (and organised enough to do so) whereas Labour voters might be more likely to fail to have or bring with them ID for a polling station? I don’t think it is.

    Fix the gaping hole in election security that is postal voting first and I’ll be willing to listen to arguments for assessing and addressing the problem of personation. Until then, excuse me while I doubt the bona fides of the plan.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Oct '18 - 11:35pm

    I am really confused by this thread and this policy area.

    We have an id issued, to each voter.

    It does not need a photo but is unique to each voter.

    It should be shown to vote.

    It is the polling card.

    That should be the requirement and thus the policy.

    No wonder we never address real problems so often in this country and party too.

  • Er – Lorenzo, like many things, it’s not as simple as that. There are increasing numbers of properties in all urban areas under multiple occupation. The one next door to me has individual post boxes directly accessible to the street, others just have piles of letters and junk mail in the hallway. What you are suggesting would, I think, actually be an encouragement to increased fraudulent activity with the unscrupulous collecting as many poll cards from vulnerable sites as possible.

  • Malcolm
    How is it abundantly obvious? Where is the evidence, beyond people who want it to be true because there might be a seat or two for their own political cause asserting that it must be happening? No evidence is shown or is even required, just accusations and unsupported claims of its alleged veracity.
    There’s a tendency amongst some amateur criminologist to try to force the evidence to fit a pet theory rather than letting the evidence point objectively to a conclusion. I think this is what is happening here. Well this person was elected and shouldn’t have been and there’s this or that suspicious property at the end of the street. They must be connected. Evidence? I saw a group of men picking letters up once. They must be rigging elections or something. Proof. It must be true because I believe it to be true.

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