Why Voter ID Requirements Are Bad For Democracy

The UK Conservative Party released their 2017 manifesto today in preparation for the upcoming election. Entitled “Forward, Together; Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future,” the majority of their pledges were fairly predictable. Changes like the slashing of their already diminished immigration allowance, increased defense spending, dropping corporate tax and means testing for pension supplements like the winter fuel allowance were all anticipated by the British public, and even looked forward to by many.

One point was new, however; and that was the proposed introduction of a law requiring voters to present identification as part of a plan “to tackle every aspect of voter fraud.” This proposal seems completely antithetical to their previous paragraph, in which they swore to make voting as “accessible as possible so that every voice counts.” Conservatives claim to be using these points to help work toward “a flourishing and secure democracy,” but voter ID requirements tend to prevent far more honest votes than they ever would fraudulent ones.

The UK’s Electoral Commission released a report on voter fraud in March, in which they analyzed all cases of alleged voter fraud in Great Britain from 2014 to 2016. Over the three years, only 91 cases emerged in which someone who voted in person was accused of electoral fraud (21 cases in 2014, 26 in 2015 and 44 in 2016). Of those, 8 resulted in either prosecution and conviction or an accepted police caution toward the suspect. The vast majority of cases required no further action due to lack of evidence or were resolved locally.

In that same report, the Electoral Commission recommends that the UK consider a new voter ID requirement, but only after creating a free form of national ID equivalent to Northern Ireland’s electoral ID card. No such plans are mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, nor have they been brought up in any media releases by members of the Conservative party.

In contrast to the 91 cases of potential fraud, an estimated three and a half million people in the United Kingdom do not own any form of photo ID. The absolute cheapest form of ID is a provisional driver’s license ordered online, which will set you back £34.00 (US$45) and will last ten years – normally two general elections – before expiring. For anyone who lives in London or any of the UK’s other major cities, voting may be the only reason they would need a license. This requirement effectively puts a price tag of £17.00 on every vote they want to cast. Passports or military ID are also acceptable, but both cost even more than a basic driver’s license. That is 7.5% of eligible voters who are being required to dish out £34.00 for their right to vote; £34.00 that might rather be put toward groceries or their oyster card. Such a law would immediately disenfranchise the poorest people in the UK, making it more difficult for them to vote.

As Cat Smith, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement, said when such laws were proposed in December, “The government should be doing all it can to encourage lawful voting and ensure a high turnout, not putting extra hurdles in the way… The plans for photo ID are like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, potentially denying a vote to millions.”

In the 2015 general election, over thirty million people voted. Of those, only 26 were accused of committing voter fraud in person. For 26 unproven cases, the government now wants to lock out around three and a half million potential voters.

Historically, those most likely to be excluded by such a law are those least likely to vote Conservative anyway, so perhaps Theresa May believes that pledging to cut them out of the process entirely will not lose her any votes and is likely to help her party in the future. Perhaps it is merely security theater, attempting to create the illusion of increased protection against a threat that does not really exist. Either way, it works to take power out of the hands of those who have very little other recourse and is absolutely against the very idea of democracy.

‘One man, one vote’ should never come with the condition of ‘as long as they can afford it.’