Elections change is largest in almost a century

By: John Ault

As an election observer, I am used to observing elections in the UK and outside it with the election observation organisation, Democracy Volunteers. Following our observations, we make recommendations to election authorities about how to improve elections and how to ensure that voters have as simple an experience as possible.

In every country, apart from Great Britain, we see voters offering personal ID (usually a passport, driving licence or national ID card) to prove their identity to elections staff when they present themselves at a polling station. This is normal behaviour, often based on the official national ID card scheme in that country. I will see it when I observe the Swedish general election in September, the US election in November and I even saw it in Northern Ireland in May, where photo ID has been a requirement for some years.

However, no such tradition, or for that matter expectation, exists in England, Scotland, and Wales. Although most people take their polling card with them to the polling station, there is not even a requirement to do this; all you must do is state your name and address and the presiding officer in your local polling station, assuming they have no suspicion you aren’t who you say you are, will issue you with your ballot paper. Although this doesn’t sound like the most robust form of security, this system has prevailed and been trusted for decades. There is something perhaps quintessentially British about the degree of trust involved in the process, a trust that has been arguably undermined at some recent elections.

Whether one accepts this view of elections is a matter of opinion. Previous election observer reports from organisations such as the OSCE/ODIHR have raised the issue of voter identification, reminding UK legislators that the ‘introduction of [a] safeguard mechanism [of] voter identification…[has] not been addressed.’[1] International observers have repeatedly seen this difference between the UK system and other comparable Western countries as being a weakness in the integrity of UK elections, or at least British ones. The UK, excluding Northern Ireland, has been an international outlier for some time. However, after a series of voter ID pilots in some councils in England, the present Government has now legislated for the introduction of voter ID. This is intended to run in England’s local elections next May with the full use of voter ID for any subsequent Westminster general election.

The issue at the heart of the debate over the introduction of voter ID has been its impact on those people who simply don’t have the relevant ID. How will they be allowed to vote in a polling station? Will they be effectively disenfranchised by the new law, meaning they are excluded from the democratic process? It has even been suggested that this will exclude potential voters from one side of the political debate more than another. After all, if you don’t have a passport or a driving licence for your own use, voting may register quite low on your list of priorities compared to other more pressing issues. I suspect those reading this article have one or other of these forms of ID to hand, but those people with neither of them may face challenges to even attend polling stations, let alone prove their identity when they arrive. 

But the debate about the introduction of voter ID is now over.

2023 will see the first use of voter ID in England on a large scale, bearing in mind there are no local elections in Scotland and Wales next year and that the legislation does not cover local elections anywhere other than England. All of the 200+ English councils with elections next year will be expected to run those elections using the new system for voting. Councils will need to review the relevant secondary legislation (which hasn’t been published yet), almost certainly retrain polling station staff, and potentially hire new and different polling stations which have the capacity for a private room to check the ID of voters who have face coverings.

Councils conducting elections next May will need to be ready for the introduction of ID, and potentially without the necessary time to prepare, these elections could be some of the most challenging recently held in the UK.

That is what has motivated my forthcoming research for the Constitution Society and what will form the basis of my report, to be published in the coming months. The new policy has significant organisational consequences for local democratic service departments. The Association of Electoral Administrators, the representative body of elections staff, often describes the delivery of elections as a ‘no-fail service’ because their delivery is the corner stone of our electoral landscape. The council staff and organisation behind them which makes sure elections work properly will be challenged on May 4th next year. As a result, we will see the new system tested to its limit.

My paper will ask those expected to run these elections whether they feel prepared and whether they are concerned about the new policy and its implementation. Electoral integrity, and its assessment, is often conducted to analyse the various checks and balances in the system. May 2023 will see a test of the basic implementation of an election, based on rules and procedures that do not yet exist. How many voters will need special facilities to have their identity checked? How many will not bring ID with them? Will this new policy drive more people to vote through the less secure system of postal voting, where ID will not be required? Will councils need to create systems to manage the applications for voter cards for those electors without ID – and if so, on what scale? 

Elections are the foundation of our governmental system, their delivery in the next 12 months could well be the most challenging in decades.

John Ault.

Dr John Ault is a Research Fellow at the Constitution Society. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.

[1] OSCE/ODIHR Report 2015, https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/b/f/147991.pdf .