American-style voter ID legal guidelines are coming to Britain

May 15, 2021

V.OTING IN MAINLAND UK is amazingly easy. You show up at a polling station and give your name and address. An officer finds your name on a list, draws a line through the list, and then gives you your ballot. The question must have occurred to many people: Couldn’t someone else pretend to be me?

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A lot of Britons believe that a lot happens. In early 2019, pollster Ipsos MORI found that 58% of respondents thought someone else was a serious problem at the national level. When asked why they thought so, some said they had heard of fraud in the media, while others cited local rumors. Some said it was just human nature.

In fact, personal identification was once widespread in Northern Ireland, which is why the province has required identification since 1985. It is extremely rare elsewhere in the UK. If someone shows up at a polling station and finds that their name has already been crossed out, they will receive a “written out” ballot. Only 1,359 of them were issued in the December 2019 general election out of a constituency of 47.5 million, and ballots cast are issued for other reasons as well. Personal fraud was alleged 33 times that year, resulting in a conviction and a warning.

Still, the government judges the threat to the democratic process to be sufficient to warrant a major change in electoral rules. On May 11, she announced that she would legally require personal voters to produce photo identification. This is more difficult in the UK, where people do not need to carry ID, than in countries where they do. Driving licenses and passports are accepted. This also applies to the bus passes of pensioners and the “blue badges” held by disabled people. Anyone without an approved photo ID can apply for a free card.

Such a change would not stop many people from voting. Seven local authorities asked voters for various forms of identification in May 2019 after warning they would do so. On average, 0.4% of potential voters who were asked for ID did not show it, were turned away and did not return to the polling station.

But many more could come to the conclusion that voting has become too cumbersome and no longer cares. “Not everyone is as excited about elections as we are,” says Jess Garland of the Electoral Reform Society, who speaks out against the change. Each effect is likely to be uneven. A poll for the government found that 10% of non-whites were less likely to vote in person if they had to show photo identification, compared with 5% of whites.

This article appeared in the UK section of the print edition under the heading “The End of Innocence”.