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'Turning voters off is a bigger risk than electoral fraud'

Anthony Zacharzewski
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Is a faked vote worse than a denied vote?

That’s the unanswered question in Sir Eric Pickles’ report on electoral fraud, Securing the Ballot.

Local government, more than national, knows that every vote matters. Plenty of wards are decided on a handful of votes, so electoral fraud doesn’t need to be on the scale of Tower Hamlets to make a difference.

A fair and trusted voting system is essential, so there is a lot to welcome in the Pickles Report, from greater powers for returning officers to stronger ballot secrecy. The most controversial proposal, though, is that voters should be required to present ID at the polling station.

There are serious problems with this. Presenting ID such as a passport, driving licence or utility bill certainly would discourage a fraudster. However, any ID arrangement that discourages the dishonest will also exclude some honest people. The Electoral Reform Society call the proposal “a sledgehammer to crack a nut”, adding: “It’s not clear that electoral fraud is anywhere near widespread enough to justify such a major change.”

Personal confession: I often don’t have the right ID. Just this afternoon I walked all the way to the station without my Travelcard. Worse, there are some people who couldn’t provide any of the forms of ID Pickles suggests. Imagine a shared house with five 18-year-olds. Will all of them have passports or driving licences? Whose names will be on the utility bill? Without a lot of forward planning, some of them will be unable to vote.

The forward planning is the problem. You wouldn’t expect committed voters to be discouraged, but the casual, unenthusiastic voter – the difference between the general election turnout and the by-election turnout – might decide it’s just not worth the hassle, or worry about embarrassing themselves if they are challenged.

The underlying cause, as the report itself says, is the confusion of identity systems in the UK. This is what leads to the bizarre logic of proving that you can drive before you’re allowed to vote. France issues its citizens with cards that are stamped for each election. Other countries have electronic identity systems. The UK government has made it clear that it won’t introduce ID cards, but the difficulty of preventing electoral fraud is one of the consequences.

But it’s a consequence that we should live with. Across those French electoral cards is written “voting is not only a right, it is a civic duty” and the government must make that duty as easy as possible to fulfil. Local government and electoral administrators in the UK have made our voting process simple, trusted and well understood. Change must be proportionate, not just to the risk of fraud, but to the risk of turning voters away. A vote defrauded is a terrible thing, but if the cost of avoiding it is a thousand votes discouraged, it’s too high a price to pay.

Anthony Zacharzewski, founder, the Democratic Society

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