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The global experience of producing voter ID at polling stations is mixed

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There is always a tension between electoral access; devising processes and procedures intended to encourage and maximise electoral participation, and electoral integrity, ensuring that bad guys do not take advantage.

This balance is complicated because while the issues involved are usually technical, the effect may be highly political, because the electoral participants at the margin may be disproportionately supporters of one side.

For example, Wisconsin was the first place to introduce out-of-territory voting in the modern era, to enfranchise soldiers serving in the Union army during the US Civil War. Was this an innovation of electoral inclusion, or a political attempt to ensure that the rules would help Abraham Lincoln win?

Many of the recommendations in Sir Eric Pickles’ report tidy up legal and regulatory provisions where gaps and inconsistencies exist, or reflect the need to keep up with the potential for malpractice using new technology – such as the ban on photographing ballot papers following, for example, that introduced by South Korea in 2014.

Others enter ground in which the global experience is much more controversial.

The proposed requirement to produce identification at the polling station would be an innovation in the UK but the pattern of global experience is mixed.

Donald Trump won 24 of the 32 states with identity requirements to vote, but only six of the 18 without

Voters must present photographic identification at polling stations in Brazil and the Netherlands. Identity documentation, although not necessarily photographic, is required in Canada. No requirement exists in Denmark, Australia, or New Zealand.

In 2016, 15 US states required voters to produce photographic identity; 17 others required identity documentation, although not necessarily photographic; and the remaining 18 did not require identity documentation.

Texas voters

Texas voters

Source: alamy

Voter ID laws have been highly controversial in the US, with allegations that their introduction or strengthening has been undertaken for political advantage.

Studies have suggested that when identity requirements at polling stations are in place, about 0.1% of those who arrive are turned away. It is commonly accepted that the poor, the elderly, and minorities are less likely to possess photographic identity documents.

Donald Trump won 24 of the 32 states with identity requirements to vote, but only six of the 18 without.

Voter ID has also been controversial in Canada, where the previous government introduced tighter rules in 2014. Amendments which would remove many of these new rules are being debated following the change in political control in 2015. A Statistics Canada survey estimated that 172,000 non-voters gave lack of ID as a reason for not voting in 2015, about 1% of the number who voted.

Electoral integrity is both a question of fact and of perception. If the administration of an election is perfect but is widely believed to be flawed, the election will lack credibility and legitimacy.

The late Stanley Singh, chief electoral officer of Guyana, once commented that although he had much fewer resources and capacity available to him than democracies in more advanced countries, he needed to deliver considerably higher quality elections because he faced a minimal level of trust between the parties and in the electoral process.

The level of trust in elections, and the question whether the intended gain in perceived integrity is worth the price in disenfranchising or discouraging valid voters, lies at the heart of a global debate in which the UK is far from the only participant.

Andrew Ellis, international consultant adviser on elections, constitutions and democracy building

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