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If I Had a Photograph of You….

By Phil Briscoe
14 September 2021

By Phil Briscoe, Managing Director

In the 38 years since A Flock of Seagulls penned those lyrics in their hit track Wishing, we’ve all become accustomed to having more photographs to carry round and usually they are of ourselves. I would challenge you all to look in your purse / wallet / phone case and see how many forms of your own photo ID you are carrying – it’s probably more than one!

So it may seem a little surprising that the political debate has this week turned to whether we should be expected to provide photographic identification when we vote in elections – but that is exactly the latest argument to divide Conservative and Labour Parliamentarians.

This week, Constitution Minister Chloe Smith MP introduced the Elections Bill 2021, which includes proposed measures in a number of different aspects of how elections operate, including changes around digital imprints, campaign finance, the Electoral Commission and voting rights for EU citizens and overseas UK electors, but these will largely be technical changes that will fail to ignite political passions.

In addition, there is a new focus on outlawing undue influence with the offence being clarified to include intimidation, deception and violence. A new electoral sanction for intimidation will add a five-year election ban to anyone found guilty, in addition to any criminal penalties. New measures on postal and proxy votes will require that applications are renewed every three years and there will be additional protection for voters including a complete ban on political campaigners handling postal votes, a practice known as “postal vote harvesting”.

However, the political battle ahead will be around the rights of individual electors to vote and whether they should need to prove their identity to exercise that right. Conservatives describe the Bill as being focused on increasing “transparency, fairness and accountability” but Labour have accused the Government of trying to stop people from voting, branding the move one of “vote rigging” and claiming that turnout will be forced down, especially among the elderly and minority groups.

Some of these issues are not just theoretical concerns and as a former Tower Hamlets councillor myself, I have seen what happens when electoral abuse goes unchecked. The Bill references the “thuggish conduct at polling stations” witnessed in the borough and this is only part of the problem – casting your legitimate vote depended on your identity not being used for a fraudulent postal vote or stolen by another person at the polling station, and visiting the polling station often involved navigating through gangs of loud and threatening “campaigners”. Hardly an environment in which to encourage participation and push up voter turnout – as in real actual voters, not just their votes being cast for them!

Fundamentally, the current voting system allows anyone to walk into a polling station and give a name and address to receive a ballot paper. There are no identification requirements and beyond the basic human values of honesty and morality, the only thing that stops someone repeatedly attempting personation is that they might be recognised on the second visit by the staff in the polling station – but with 35,500 polling stations to choose from, the opportunities for voter fraud tourism are immense.  

So why should we be able to vote without producing identification?

Opponents focus their concerns on those people who do not have a valid photo ID to use on polling day, but a recent Cabinet Office survey found that 91 per cent of those polled had a valid form of in-date identification, which rose to 99 per cent for those aged between 18 and 24 but remained at 91 per cent for those over 85. Counting everyone who has some form of photo ID (including expired documents), the number was 98 per cent across the country and that number rose to 100 per cent for those identifying in the Asian, Indian or Asian-British groups. The Bill provides for anyone without a valid form of ID to apply for a free local Vote Card from their local authority.

Other arguments against the need to produce photo ID might be that is not required elsewhere in the world – but that is not really true as identification is required in many countries including France, Germany, Italy, Canada, some US States, and closer to home in Northern Ireland, where photo ID has been required to vote since 2003.

There are also practical and real concerns about the logistics and management of a slower voting process – there may well be longer queues at polling stations and more resource will be required to manage the process. The Association of Electoral Administrators have already voiced their concerns this week that they do not have “limitless capacity” to handle the proposed changes to the system and they raise a justifiable concern that there are already over 75 pieces of primary legislation linked to running elections. However, a system that instils confidence from voters and allows fewer reasons to cast seeds of doubt or grounds for challenge will ultimately also reduce burdens in other areas.  

So why penalise voters when you don’t need to produce photo ID for anything else? Well, unless you want to use your rail season ticket, your bus card, enter your workplace, withdraw cash from a bank, buy a house, collect your mail from the sorting office…the list goes on. In fact, most people probably have multiple forms of photo ID on them at all times (how many did you find?) and not because we have turned into a police state but to provide protection and security. Identity theft is a growing crime and in 2019, more than 223,000 cases were recorded in the UK, so proving your identity is about safeguarding your rights, your assets and your information – and when the Elections Bill 2021 becomes law, the protection of your vote will be added to that list.