In-person voter fraud is not a big problem in mainland UK. It is not even a small problem. It is a miniscule one. At the last general election, only 164 cases of alleged electoral fraud were investigated by the police, resulting in just one conviction – that of a person who grabbed a ballot box to stop others voting. For context, more than 47 million votes were cast overall. The most recent case of significant electoral fraud was during the election for Mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2014, but this mainly concerned postal votes and bribery rather than people voting at polling stations.
Nevertheless the government has pushed ahead with its plans for Voter ID to be shown at polling stations, meaning in-person electors must produce approved photographic identification at next month’s local elections in much of England outside London. This has aroused suspicions that the true motivation for the exercise – which comes at an estimated cost of £180 million over a decade – is to gain electoral advantage for the Conservatives.
Although there are no planned elections in the capital this year, Londoners will vote for their Mayor of London Assembly members on 2 May 2024 and a general election must come at some point before January 2025. Will the Voter ID reforms have an impact on election outcomes? And will they have a particular effect on London?
There are two main ways in which people who are legally entitled to vote could from now on be prevented from doing so. One is if they fail to bring one of the correct forms of photo ID to the polling station. The other is that they simply not possess one. Research commissioned by the Cabinet Office in 2021 found that although 96 per cent of people have a suitable form of photo ID, that still leaves around two million people who do not.
Eligible voters without the right ID can apply to their local councils for a Voter Authority Certificate, but as of last week only 55,000 across the country had done so. Concerns have been raised that the votes of younger, poorer and non-white people – groups that disproportionately vote Labour – might be suppressed as a result.
However, the Cabinet Office research found that younger people were actually the group most likely to hold some kind of valid voter identification. It was the over-85s who were least likely to. The research also found little difference between white and non-white groups. Nevertheless, people who were unemployed, who had the fewest educational qualifications or were severely disabled were all found to be less likely to have a valid form of voter identification.
But the picture might look different in London. Driving licenses are the form of ID that most people intend to use as proof of identity, but a feature of living in a city which (at least for now) has a world-class public transport system is that fewer people regularly drive. Across the UK, 78 per cent of households have at least one car. In London only 54 per cent do. Transport for London has found that higher income Londoners are more likely to have a car, and that car ownership is highest among the 55-59 age group.
While Londoners are no less likely to have some kind of valid ID than other Britons, the form of ID matters because people who drive regularly are much more likely to habitually carry a driving licence with them. Even if they are unaware that they need to bring ID in order to vote, the chances are that they will have the necessary identification with them. Given that Ipsos has found considerable confusion about what kinds of ID will be accepted, and that 15 per cent of voters are likely to bring an incorrect form of identification, this could be important.
Meanwhile, for those above the age 60, travel passes will be accepted as valid ID whereas those for younger people will not. Furthermore, retirees are more likely to be in a position to return to a polling station with valid ID if initially turned away for not having it than those with work or family commitments, who might not be able to find the time. Overall, the new rules are particularly likely to be a problem for non-driving Londoners of working age. And they happen to be a group disproportionately unlikely to vote Tory.
If the government’s primary aim in introducing Voter ID was to secure an electoral advantage, across the UK as a whole they may be disappointed. Younger people are more likely to hold a valid form of ID than the very oldest voters, and the very youngest – who are frequently asked to prove their age – are more likely to carry such ID with them as a matter of course. This may well counter-balance any national political effect from disabled and unemployed people being less likely to have ID. But in London, the picture could be different given the larger numbers of working age people who do not regularly drive and therefor might not be carrying ID with them.
It is true that any advantage gained by the Conservatives is likely to be small. But it is also true that election outcomes can be determined by small numbers of voters. In competitive local authorities, tiny amounts of votes across several electoral wards can flip control of a council from one party to another. In the last general election, four seats in London were secured with majorities of under 1,000. The results in such as these could have a big impact in a hung parliament. Requiring photo ID to vote is an answer to a non-existent problem and will inevitably disenfranchise some people who are eligible to vote. In London, this has the potential to give a political advantage to the Conservatives.
Christabel Cooper is Director of Research at think tank Labour Together. Follow Christabel on Twitter.