England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Voter ID and the question of trust


Photo by Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash

Public trust in elections is essential for any democracy. If the public believes the results of an election are trustworthy, that they genuinely reflect the will of the public, that all the necessary processes were followed according to the law (and both the winners and losers can agree that the election was fair), then elected representatives have the legitimacy they need to govern.

But, how can we ensure that elections are trusted and trustworthy? We have seen in the United States that trust in electoral processes can be severely undermined if one candidate rejects the results of an election. Donald Trump’s continued baseless assertions that the 2020 presidential election was rigged has damaged trust in elections, particularly among his supporters.

Trust has also been a live political topic in the UK for a few years now. Policymakers and regulators alike have spoken about the importance of maintaining public trust in elections, and as a consequence mandatory voter ID in polling stations has become the government’s favoured policy to shore up confidence. As of May 2023, for the first time, all voters in England will be required to show photographic ID at polling stations in order to vote. This major change will eventually affect all voters in the UK when voters in Scotland and Wales have to present ID for parliamentary elections.

Where did this start, and has public confidence always been an important part of the story?

A short history of voter ID in the UK

The first time voter ID was brought in in the UK was in Northern Ireland in 1985, following instances of personation (a person pretending to be another person in the polling station – the type of fraud voter ID can prevent) in the 1983 general election. In 2003 this was changed to full photographic identification as a result of continued suspicions of electoral fraud. An Electoral Commission report at the time noted the importance of perceptions of fraud in this decision, saying that although there were no extant statistics on electoral fraud: ‘addressing people’s perceptions of fraud is a valuable objective in its own right – particularly if confidence in the integrity of the electoral process is to be maintained and enhanced (p.15).’

The debate for introducing voter ID across the rest of the UK has followed a remarkably similar trajectory. In 2014 the Electoral Commission recommended the introduction of voter ID in polling stations, specifically referencing how the change could improve both the security of the system and confidence in electoral processes, stating that: ‘[p]erceptions of fraud can be as damaging as actual incidents of electoral fraud.’ A few years later, and following the high-profile cases of electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets, Sir Eric Pickles led a review into electoral fraud in England. Again, this review made it clear how important trust was as a justification for the introduction of voter ID: ‘ We need to make sure that people trust the system and that perceptions can play as big a part in undermining the system as well as actual proof of fraud.’ An almost identical restatement of the point made in the Electoral Commission report.

As the debate on voter ID has continued, supporters of the reform have increasingly referred to how it can improve confidence in the electoral process. The two big questions are: what evidence is there that public trust in elections is in need of improvement, and will voter ID will increase trust in elections?

Do the public trust elections?

The Electoral Commission performs regular surveys to determine the levels of public trust in elections. In their 2022 research they concluded that public confidence in elections was high. Satisfaction with the process of voting is over 80%, only 8% of people think their vote is not counted accurately (one standard measure of confidence in electoral processes across many studies). In general, this looks like a positive picture of confidence in elections.

Just to compare this to the last time voter ID was introduced in the UK, perceptions of fraud in Northern Ireland at the time of the introduction of photographic voter ID were high, the Electoral Commission reported that based on a public opinion survey in 2002 64% of respondents agreed with the statement: ‘Electoral fraud in some areas is enough to change the election results.’ As a point of comparison, the same question was asked by the Electoral Commission in 2022 across England, and a comparatively small 33% agreed. However, 33%, despite being comparatively low, is still quite high, and completely out of step with the empirical evidence, which suggests that proven cases of fraud, particularly personation, are vanishingly rare.

To add to this, there are areas of the electoral process unrelated to voter ID that the public have significantly less trust in. 56% see the regulation of party spending at elections as a problem, 70% that bias in the media is a problem, 61% that turnout is a problem and 31% that barriers to participation for minority groups is a problem. These last two, in particular, are issues that opponents of voter ID have argued are likely to be exacerbated by the reform. Perhaps this is why the Electoral Commission reports on public attitudes have described the reform as polarising, with 43% of survey respondents saying it would improve elections but 31% disagreeing.

Will voter ID improve trust?

This brings us to our final question, if voter ID is polarising, and is likely to exacerbate certain issues that voters have with elections, even as it improves others, what will the overall effect on trust be?

This is very difficult to answer. One way the government tried to address this question was through trials of voter ID in 2018 and 2019. The Electoral Commission, and my own research, concluded after the 2019 pilots that overall confidence had been improved, but that there were serious issues with generalising the experiences in the pilot areas to the whole UK. Additionally, these pilots tested a range of types of ID, most of which were less strict than the requirements that will be in place for the 2023 local elections.

Finally, there are three reasons to think that voter ID could cause issues with trust when rolled out across different types of elections that would have been difficult to detect in the pilots. It may be that these do not come to pass, but they are worth considering.

Reason one

First, certain minority groups that are hard to reach in nationally representative surveys may be systematically less likely to be able to meet the voter ID requirements. A Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report noted that they had received evidence from charities representing blind and partially sighted people and people with learning disabilities who may be disproportionately affected, as well as LGBT groups who raised the difficulties trans and nonbinary people may have with the reform. Charities representing Travellers have also raised similar concerns. It is reasonable to imagine that the effect voter ID may have on confidence amongst these groups could be quite different to the overall level of confidence, and it is essential that their opinions are specifically sought after the introduction of mandatory voter ID. Overall, Electoral Commission and Cabinet Office research has suggested that between 1.3 and 1.9 million people do not have photographic ID. Voters have been provided an alternative, with the voter authority certificate, but take-up for this option so far has been low. We could imagine that these social groups, and people without ID, might see their confidence in the process decrease instead of increase if they get to the polling station and are unable to vote.

Reason two

Second, the administration of voter ID could lead to a decrease in trust. The administration of elections is a very difficult task, as our blog from the Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators makes clear, and the implementation of voter ID is another responsibility being put onto a service that research shows is already under intense pressure. As just one example, electoral administrators are responsible for processing the new voter authority certificates for anyone without photo ID who applies. The government has estimated that each application will take 6 minutes to process. This would not be a problem if a manageable number came in every day between now and the deadline date (25th April), but what is much more likely is that there will be a flood of applications on the deadline day, less than 10 days before the day of the election. Even just processing 1000 applications would take 100 hours, let alone making sure they get out to electors, and the teams working on elections are often small, with around 4.3 full-time equivalent staff in the average team. This new requirement could easily take a dedicated member of staff all their time in the days before an election. I would not suggest that we should expect administrative problems at these elections, electoral administrators have been dealing with difficult circumstances for years as research has shown, but we should be mindful that there are new burdens on these staff, and that experience of administrative mishaps, unequal implementation, or poor experiences with the process can have a negative impact on public trust.

Reason three

Third, and finally, the problem of political polarisation. Research from the United States has shown that the position party supporters take on voter ID is greatly influenced by political leaders. In general, Republicans are more confident in elections if there are strong voter ID requirements and Democrats less. This is a worrying pattern considering that in the UK the Conservative party has been the primary driver of moves to voter ID, and the Labour party has opposed them. Senior Labour party figures have implied that voter ID is being introduced to give the Conservative party an electoral advantage. If this continues, it could lead to a situation where Labour supporters’ confidence in elections is decreased by voter ID. This could be exacerbated in a situation where, in a high-salience election like a general election, a Labour candidate loses to a Conservative, and the margin of victory is small enough that the number of people denied their vote due to the voter ID requirements could have made the difference. This is the nightmare scenario for trust in elections and another reason why increased trust in the process is not guaranteed by voter ID.

The question of whether voter ID will improve trust in elections is a very difficult one to answer with the data we have. As of May 2023, we should have a better idea as the policy is rolled out across England for the first time. Any post-election analysis should take into account the importance of identifying and surveying minority groups who may be harder to reach in national surveys, looking into the experience of electoral administrators (as we plan to) and understanding the important and difficult role partisanship can play.

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