In this article, Dr. Greg Stride of LGIU’s Local Democracy Research Centre disseminates the findings of his recent PhD into the health of England’s electoral system. He conducted in-depth interviews with electoral staff at the heart of it all and collated their experiences and views on the current situation and the changes ahead, including the implementation of voter ID.
The 2022 Elections Act has introduced a whole series of changes to how elections will operate in England, far and away the most publicised of which is the introduction of mandatory voter ID in polling stations. For years successive governments have promoted this change by saying that it will increase public confidence in elections. Although it is less clear whether there is any systematic problem with public confidence in England, with Electoral Commission surveys suggesting public confidence is high. It is definitely true that we should pay attention to whether the public trusts elections – trusted elections being the foundation of democratic legitimacy. Plus, the recent developments in the United States, since the 2020 presidential election, have shown that even well-managed elections cannot guarantee public trust. An even more fundamental question than whether elections are trusted, is whether they are trustworthy.
Before joining the LGIU, I completed a UKRI-funded PhD at the University of Exeter on English electoral administration to determine how elections looked ‘from the inside’. For that research I interviewed and surveyed electoral administrators across the country, finding that there are serious concerns about electoral integrity in England. There were four major dimensions across which electoral administrators judged elections:
- Public perceptions
The situation as it stands
As we move into the 2023 elections, it is worth looking into the existing issues electoral administrators raised, before we consider the new problems that compulsory voter ID might entail.
High demand on staff
From an administrative perspective, elections in England have severe weaknesses. Electoral services staff are under intense pressure caused by short timetables, convoluted legislation, inefficient processes and inadequate resourcing, and seemingly the only reason we haven’t seen more problems with election delivery over the years is because the small teams of electoral services staff take it upon themselves to work extraordinary hours to make sure elections happen – often at significant personal cost. Despite these concerns being well-publicised by the Association of Electoral Administrators, the recent Elections Act (2022) has continued the trend of making significant patchwork changes to electoral law without giving significant time for staff to plan how to deliver their new requirements. Most prominently, the new procedures for voter ID have been introduced late on, and staff have severe concerns about how they will manage to deliver it in time for the May elections.
When judged by their inclusivity, elections fared significantly better. However, there were concerns about the accessibility of elections for disabled electors, most prominently blind and partially sighted electors, who were deemed by many administrators to have inadequate access to truly secret and private voting. Additionally, administrators raised concerns about how processes may have an indirect effect on certain types of electors. When you move house in England you have to re-register, a task which means many people who move house often, such as students and private renters, are more likely to fall off the electoral register than people who have been settled for a long time. Finally, and most worryingly, more than 80% of electoral administrators believed turnout was a problem. In interviews, local elections, especially Police and Crime Commissioner elections, were often raised as examples of where turnout is particularly low, which administrators raised as an issue for ensuring the public are properly represented at a local level.
Safety and security
On security, electoral administrators were rarely concerned about the current processes. When there were concerns, they more frequently related to individual infringements of democratic rights, such as intimidation, rather than systematic threats large enough to threaten the natural results of an election. Few raised personation, postal vote fraud, or foreign intervention in UK elections as major problems in elections (7%, 15% and 27% respectively). However, this is not to say that there was total agreement between electoral administrators on this topic. There was a split in the respondents between those who opposed security-focussed reforms, most often voter ID, because of the additional burden they placed on electors (or staff) and those who supported them, either because the reform directly improves the security of elections, or more often because the reform may improve how secure electors believe elections are.
This additional lens through which elections in England were judged, based on what electors believe is true about elections, was one of the most interesting results of the research. Electoral administrators demonstrated severe concerns about public perceptions of the process, with over 50% saying they constituted a problem. In interviews, administrators brought up how perceptions could be negatively influenced by untrue statements on social media or by politicians seeking to undermine confidence in election results, and exacerbated by any real issues with elections. The experiences of electoral administrators in the USA loomed large in this part of the research, and English elections staff often expressed concerns that similar baseless accusations of rigged election results could become a feature of English elections.
The impact of voter ID
The introduction of voter ID in polling stations is an interesting policy because it can be legitimately assessed using any of the values outlined above. Supporters of voter ID usually argue that it will reduce the vulnerability of elections to intentional efforts to cause harm, or that it is necessary to ensure public perceptions of elections remain positive. Whereas opponents of ID might question whether the reform is worthwhile considering it increases the burden on voters, and may have a disproportionate effect on certain social groups – such as the young.
What more on this topic? Check out our member-only briefing on Voter ID:
Finally, and perhaps least intuitively, voter ID represents a new administrative challenge. The government has released a data dashboard showing the number of applications for voter authority certificates, the alternative for people who do not have any ID. As of today (March 10), the total number of applications is only around 28,000. From an administrative perspective, this represents an issue because processing these applications takes time, and if very few applications are coming in now, that probably means that many more will appear close to the deadline – exactly as with voter registrations. This potential deluge of applications risks taking up electoral administrators’ time and resources exactly when they are their busiest with the ordinary tasks of running an election. Whether this causes significant problems when it comes to the time of the election is yet to be seen, and LGIU’s Local Democracy Research Centre is planning research to understand exactly what implementing voter ID looks like from the inside.
Overall, we have not yet seen examples of election failure in England: there have not been widespread protests, electoral violence or major forces refusing to accept election results. However, by taking into account the experiences of the small teams whose job it is to make elections happen, we can see how although on their surface elections may appear unshakeable, behind the scenes elections are another struggling essential local service.
You can find all of LGIU’s 2023 election resources right here.