In Brief

ID for voters: a ‘suspicious’ proposal?

In a pilot scheme, the Freedom Pass for pensioners was deemed acceptable, but student IDs were ruled out

Boris Johnson once vowed that, were he ever asked to show an identity card when he was simply exercising his rights as a “freeborn Englishman”, he’d “physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded I produce it”. The “plot twist” is that the emanation now turns out to be Johnson himself, said Marina Hyde in The Guardian. His government is going to draw up a bill that will require people to show photo ID at polling stations, to combat electoral fraud.

This is a “suspiciously unnecessary” plan: in 2019, only one person in the UK was convicted of in-person voter fraud (postal fraud is a far larger problem). It looks like the kind of “voter suppression” seen in the US: a bill designed to make it harder for young adults or those on low incomes – who are less likely to have passports and driving licences, and also less likely to support the Tories–to vote. It does look suspicious, agreed Rachel Cunliffe in the New Statesman. The precise rules on IDs are not yet clear, but “tellingly”, in a pilot scheme, the Freedom Pass for pensioners – who are more likely to vote Tory – was deemed acceptable, but student IDs were ruled out.

Like most people, I enjoy the ease of voting in Britain, but the system is worryingly “open to abuse”, said Charles Moore in The Daily Telegraph. I exposed its flaws myself when, as a journalistic experiment, I voted twice in the Brexit referendum–once from my main home in Sussex and once from my flat in London (I deliberately spoilt the second ballot). There are actual cases of electoral fraud, too: in 2015, Lutfur Rahman was removed as mayor of Tower Hamlets in London after he was found to have used “numerous illegal methods” to secure his election, including impersonation at polling stations. In 2003, the Labour government introduced photo ID rules in Northern Ireland, and they are widely considered fair and effective.

The new system would not be onerous: anyone without photo ID could simply apply for a free voter card. This is “common sense, and should be common ground”. The policy might look like a “blatant attempt” by the Conservatives to gain a marginal advantage, said Sean O’Grady in The Independent. But a 2014 review by the Electoral Commission (generally deemed rather anti-Tory) actually supported the use of voter photo ID, to boost public confidence and security in the system. The experience in Northern Ireland reveals no significant effect on voter turnout. The real question is whether the Prime Minister – one of the noisiest libertarian critics of Labour’s plans for ID cards back in 2005 – is able to bring his backbenchers along with him.

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