The pros and cons of compulsory voter identification at elections

Polling Station

With the BBC reporting that pilot voter ID schemes will take place next year, what are the merits and detriments of the proposal?

According to the BBC, five places in England will be set to trial the process of having voters checked for identification when they go to their polling stations.

The arguments in favour

One strong argument for introducing such schemes in the UK is that the electoral process is an incredibly important part to the running of the country's democratic engines. Democratic votes are integral to how the country is run so it is vital that the process is not abused, no matter how minimal the abuse may be. The argument follows that voter ID checks would make sure that each voter is exactly who they say they are. The scale of abuse may well be small, but in close elections with plenty of marginal results – like in June’s snap election – even the smallest number of abuses could be distorting the results.

Secondly, while small, the scale of the visible abuse is rising. According to the BBC, reports of people voting as other individuals – whether they be “living, dead or fictitious” – increased from 21 to 44 in two years. The numbers may seem small, but in close elections they could be crucial. On top of this, the numbers cited are only for reported incidents, meaning that they could be just the tip of the iceberg. Voter identification checks could go some way to preventing this.

House of Commons Chamber: Speaker's table

The arguments against

One argument against such ID checks is that, as already touched upon, the reported number of possible incidents is so small, the massive scale of the change, including extra time allowed for at polling stations to check everyone's ID, is not worth conducting in order to deter a handful of determined individuals. Yes, the abuse exists, but scale of it is so small, there is not need to introduce such big measures.

Another argument against the change is that such a move could deter people from engaging in the democratic process. Not everyone has a drivers’ licence or a passport, and not everyone can afford one. For many of the country’s poorest citizens, the cost of investing in a valid form of identification could outweigh the perceived benefit of voting for their preferred candidate. In such a case, voter ID checks could end up weakening the democratic process by punishing already marginalised groups. This is one of the arguments made by the Electoral Reform Society who oppose such ID checks.

On top of this, they argue that:

“Even if you have ID, forcing people to bring it to exercise their right to vote will lead to inevitable mistakes and accidents. Make no mistake – errors in checking voter ID would have a far bigger impact on election results than alleged fraud.”

Are voter ID checks the future?

This is clearly one issue that has led to strong feelings on both sides of the debate with each side highlighting valid points. The validity of each side's arguments show why a pilot scheme is the right step before adopting a universal change in policy.

If the scheme goes well then there are a few things policy-makers will have to consider. Abuse in the system is clearly present on some scale, but the debate probably boils down to this: is making a change worth it to tackle the problem? And how effectively can the new issues that could arise from the change be mitigated?