Voter identification (ID) requirements have long been a contentious issue in electoral systems around the world. The recent English local elections of 2023 shed light on the damaging effects of voter ID policies as, for the first time, voters in England were required to show photo ID in order to cast their vote. Accepted forms of ID included passports, driving licences, 60+ oyster cards (but not the 18+ student ones) and some bus passes.
The requirement will also apply to some, but not all elections in Scotland – any elections to Westminster will now require photo ID, but not those for Scottish local authorities or indeed Holyrood. A distinction that could lead to the potentially confusing situation of Scots being able to vote for some, but not all, of their elected representatives if they don’t have the required ID.
Enacted to provide additional security and prevent personation – the offence of impersonating another voter at the polling station – voter ID has always been a solution in search of a problem. In 2019, the last year of national elections in the UK there were 58 million votes cast between general, local and European elections across the UK and just one conviction of this electoral offence.
Voter ID is, and was always going to be, a huge barrier between voters and the ballot box implemented to address an issue which doesn’t exist on a widespread scale.
The government’s own research suggests that around 2 million people lack the kind of photographic ID needed to cast a vote under these rules – almost 180,000 of whom live in Scotland – many of whom are already among society’s most marginalised.
Ahead of the elections applications for the government’s free Voter Authority Certificate – the scheme designed to ensure those without ID could still vote – numbered just 85,000 barely scratching the surface on the number of those who could be turned away.
It’s too early to know the full extent of the impact of these new rules on the English local elections – but evidence revealed this month by the BBC shows that across 160 of the 230 councils that had elections, over 9000 people were turned away.
The implementation of voter ID policies in England raises concerns about its potential impact on democracy here in Scotland. Scotland has traditionally taken a different approach when it comes to democracy, prioritizing accessibility and inclusion in its electoral system from the use of proportional representation to votes at 16. Voter ID would represent a significant shift from this approach – the imposition of a more Westminster-style approach to elections.
But it’s not too late for the government to change course. This policy could and should be repealed before the next General Election to ensure that the same scenes we saw in England, of voters being turned away from polling stations, aren’t repeated.
Other changes too could lessen the negative impacts of the policy on democratic access – expanding the list of acceptable IDs, including non-photographic ID and even poll cards, as we and many others have called for, could prevent many voters from being turned away. So too could a vouching system like seen in Canada, where a voter with ID could vouch for the identity of a voter without. Both small changes could have a big impact on election day.
Ministers rejected both these ideas when the policy was debated in parliament. As a result, we now have one of the most restrictive voter ID regimes – far more restrictive than many US states where there are accusations that election rules are used to suppress voter turnout for political gain.
These lessons learned should serve as a warning to the potential threat such policies pose to the democratic process in future Scottish elections. It is crucial to prioritize fair and accessible electoral processes that uphold the principles of democracy and ensure equal participation for all citizens.