Elections Watchdog Warns Voter ID Plans Risk Undermining Confidence In Democracy
The Electoral Commission is launching public awareness campaigns about the new voter ID policy (Alamy)
The Electoral Commission is warning that the shortened timeframe to raise awareness of the government’s controversial voter ID plans before people next go to the polls risks undermining confidence in British democracy.
The Elections Bill, which enshrined in law that in order to vote, people will need to present a type of photo ID from an approved list to cast their ballots received Royal Assent back in April, but the secondary legislation setting out the details of how the scheme would work in practice was only tabled earlier this month.
It was due to be published in the summer, and the commission – the independent agency that oversees UK elections – are concerned about the impact the delay has on how much time electoral administrators would have to prepare.
They also point to the fact the normal timetable of having legislation on the statute book at least six months before it has to be implemented has not been met, with the next ballot due to take place with May 2023's local elections.
The Electoral Commission is about to embark on a public information campaign to contact the more than two million potential voters currently without the necessary documentation and make them aware of the changes.
It comes amid fears by campaigners people will be turned away at polling stations as a result of not having the correct ID, and people will lose confidence in the results of those ballots, and in the overall democratic process.
The Electoral Reform Society called on MPs last month to launch an inquiry into the implementation of voter ID and the impact of these delays, saying that "putting our electoral system under this sort of pressure risks undermining one of the most important aspects of democratic life – that voters and candidates accept that the process was fair and the results are true".
The Electoral Commission is understood to have been telling the government since last year when the Elections Act was first drafted that they didn’t feel the policy could be delivered properly, and was always going to be compromised.
Craig Westwood, the body's Director of Communications, Policy and Research, told PoliticsHome: “We have always said that voter ID must be delivered in a way that is secure, workable and accessible.
“We are focussed fully on making sure the measure is implemented as effectively as possible, but the delays mean that these tests may not be fully met.”
The Conservative government has long been in favour of bringing in the requirement to show ID to vote in elections, insisting the move would restore “integrity” to the political system and tackle voter fraud. Currently people only have to state their name to be handed a ballot paper.
But critics argue instances of fraud are incredibly rare, and the measures risk disenfranchising millions of people who don't have a sufficient form of ID.
There are also fears that local authorities, who administrate polling stations, are struggling to get the volunteers needed to staff them, and are running out of time to train them on the new system of checks before someone can be handed their ballot paper, as the secondary legislation was tabled 19 weeks later than the government had originally scheduled.
As well as significant financial pressures on councils, they have been reporting back to the commission that lots of experienced people have been retiring and they are struggling to get people to staff polling stations, with having to take on new responsibilities in implementing the voter ID policy a factor.
Westwood added: “We have seen that others in the electoral community share concerns about the impact of delays.
“Electoral administrators face time and resourcing pressures, while tasked with implementing new processes, resourcing and training staff, and changing IT systems.
“Our abiding focus is public confidence in elections, which is hard won and easily lost. However, while the timeframe is tight, we are committed to ensuring that both administrators and voters are prepared for May.”
He said the delays in receiving details from the government on how the process would work “meant that the electoral community could not begin its planning work when expected”, and the shortened timetable has put “increased pressure on those responsible for delivering the change”.
The public information campaign running in the new year will advise people on what ID they will need to carry, and what to do if they do not have it – such as applying for the free new Voter Card.
A government spokesperson told PoliticsHome: “We cannot be complacent when it comes to ensuring our democracy remains secure.
“Everyone eligible to vote will have the opportunity to do so and 98 per cent of electors already have an accepted form of identification.
“Photo identification has been used in Northern Ireland elections since 2003 and we’re working closely with the sector to support the rollout and funding the necessary equipment and staffing.”
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