May the 4th be with them! Voter ID is no longer far, far away

By: John Ault

Fair elections are the basis from which we choose our representatives to send to the local council or even to Parliament. This might seem something of a statement of the obvious, but people rarely realise that the methodology of such elections has gone pretty much unchanged for 150 years in England, Scotland and Wales. However, this coming May will see voters in England go to the polls to vote for the first time needing to show ID before they can vote.

As well as being able to show several different forms of ID, such as the obvious passport or driving licence, voters without appropriate forms of ID will be able to apply for the new voter card, which will be an A4 sheet they can take with them to the polling station.

As such, as someone who is used to dealing with local authority elections departments, I wondered if this change would lead to increased pressure on already small teams who are often stretched at election time. As well as looking through the ongoing debate concerning voter ID, I decided the best way to find out how it was likely to affect them was simply to ask them. Not all of England has elections in May 2023, but a significant number of councils do. These will be the testing ground for voter ID. In addition, there has been a great deal of concern about the lack of sight of the secondary legislation that will implement the new policy, which was only released earlier in November.

The report which I have authored suggests there is genuine concern amongst the electoral community: those that run elections in local authorities. I invited all those councils holding elections in May 2023 to complete a survey, of which 70 answered some or all of the questions. For obvious reasons we have kept the identity of each council private in the report itself.

When asked ‘are you worried that delivering this part of the new election procedure will lead to problems in polling stations?’ not a single respondent said they were ‘not at all worried’. Over 57% said they were ‘very or extremely worried’.

When asked how confident they were that staff would be ready to run the 2023 local elections before the secondary legislation was published, an overwhelming 86% of responding elections staff said they were either ‘not at all confident’ or ‘not so confident’. Fortunately, it was eventually published in early November, but how much this will ease concerns remains to be seen.

Finally, the survey asked, ‘The Election Act 2022 brings in changes for elections and elections administrators – do you think these changes make your job easier or more difficult?’ In response, not one respondent stated that the changes would make their job easier. The group was split equally – 50% stated that the changes would make their jobs ‘much more difficult’, the other 50% said it would simply make it ‘more difficult’. 

This statistic should worry legislators and the public alike. Those responsible for running elections are often over-worked, especially in the time sensitive period of election, with its numerous fixed deadlines. If they are worried, we should be worried. This is not a community prone to public displays of anxiety. The fact that they are telling us they are concerned is noteworthy.

Trust in elections is fundamental as we have seen in other advanced electoral jurisdictions. These means both the conduct and outcomes they generate need to be robust and seen to be equitable by those participating in them. The worry is that in May we will see voters turned away at polling stations because the implementation of the policy will not have bedded in sufficiently. Even if it is a dinner table topic for the politically engaged or those concerned with our democracy, I suspect it is not a topic of discussion for most people. For many, then, it will come as a surprise when they arrive at their local polling station next May without the appropriate ID and are turned away, potentially meaning they won’t return to vote. 

The prospect of anyone being disenfranchised by the introduction of voter ID is worrying, but beyond this, and as was stated earlier, 57% of responding councils are very or extremely worried about problems at polling stations as a consequence of the introduction of voter ID. That the experts are this worried is truly cause for concern. 

May 4th 2023, will see the most challenging environment for council staff to deliver elections for many years. The test for the electoral community will be whether they can be prepared in time for the changes and whether elections are equally trusted as before.

I am hosting a discussion event around the report with the Constitution Society on Wednesday 7th December, 2022, at 6PM. You can register for that HERE. 

 The report itself can be read in full HERE.

John Ault 

Dr John Ault is the director of the UK-based election observation group, Democracy Volunteers. He has observed elections across the UK, much of Europe, and in North America. He has previously been an academic, elected councillor, and election campaigner. He is also a former chair of the UK’s Electoral Reform 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.