During the United Kingdom’s May 2019 local elections, ten council areas were mandated to conduct a pilot. Any voter looking to vote in the election would have to provide a form of personal identification or face being turned away. While this may reduce the risk of fraudulent or illegitimate votes, is it worth the possible negative impact on the United Kingdom’s democracy?
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Undermining the Right to Vote?
The U.K. electorate partook in local council elections on Thursday, May 2, 2019, the same day as the general election in 2015. This time, however, the ballots for some voters have significantly changed.
As part of a cabinet office mandate, voters in the council areas of: Braintree, Broxtowe, Craven, Derby, Mid-Sussex, North Kesteven, North West Leicestershire, Pendle, Watford, and Woking were instructed to provide a form of photographic identification before they could cast their ballots. The original plan for the pilot had 12 councils taking part; however, before the pilot even took place, both East Staffordshire and Ribble Valley councils withdrew from the program, citing limited resources and time constraints as explanations.
The result of the pilot was 819 voters being turned away from the polling booths, demonstrating a risk of disenfranchisement with the electoral process in future ballots.
This is not the first time the U.K. government has chosen to implement such a pilot. Mandatory ID checking was required at the 2018 local elections in the council areas of Gosport, Swindon, Woking, Watford, and Bromley, where 350 voters were denied their right to cast a ballot for failing to provide a form of photographic identification. While this may not initially seem like a significant number of affected voters, should the pilot be implemented in full, the problem would be much larger when extrapolated across the nation. With apathy among the electorate still an ever-present factor and only average turnout at the ballot boxes, a pilot such as this poses the risk of deterring citizens from voting altogether.
The primary reason for the pilot was cited to be addressing the risk of fraudulent voter impersonation, yet this accounted for just eight of the 266 allegations made in the 2018 elections, which raises the question: is voting fraud as large as it is purported to be? Research conducted by the Electoral Commission has suggested that approximately 3.5 million U.K. citizens do not possess a form of photographic identification. If these requirements for ID were limited only to passports and drivers licenses (as the United Kingdom does not have a national ID credential), these non-mandatory documents could restrict almost 20% of the electorate from casting their ballot, according to figures from ABI Research’s Government and Healthcare ID Cards (MD-GHSC-21)market data.
Furthermore, this has led to accusations from left-wing voters that the pilot maintains a system of suppression against ethnic minority groups and low-income families, who are less likely to possess a driver’s license or a passport, thereby maintaining a predominantly Conservative electorate. This has been compared to the alleged restrictive voter ID laws within the United States, which have been claimed to disenfranchise working-class and minority voters, both of which are statistically more likely to vote Democrat.
A Sign of Things to Come?
While a policy of “show your papers” may fulfil a legitimate purpose in a country with a dedicated voting credential, such as a voter card or an alternative mandatory document like a national ID card, many voters may have had their vote suppressed in the UK. This comes at a time when the UK is in a state of political deadlock over the withdrawal process from the European Union and many voters across the spectrum wish to make their voices heard. Perhaps then, a solution that maintains security and integrity, without compromising on inclusivity should be sought.
One such solution could be the use of a mobile identity. A solution that is already seeing increasing traction in EU countries with national ID credentials, the use of a mobile handset to store or display a photographic citizen ID could be deployed in the UK. With approximately 81% of U.K. citizens owning a smartphone, this could provide a way for a voter to supply a form of photo identification without needing a physical document. Of course, the identity will have to be created and trusted in the event it is not derived from preexisting credentials such as a driver’s license or a passport. This could also mean the identities would need to be managed from a centralized government database which could incur installation costs beyond the realms of feasibility, even more so for a distributed ledger. However, it may also provide a backup for citizens who do possess a passport or driver’s license but have misplaced them on election day.
In 2018, voters in Mid Sussex, Watford, and North West Leicestershire tested pre-issued polling cards, which provide a less restrictive solution without compromising on security. However, should a voter turn up without their poll card, they were still required to show another form of ID. These poll cards also came with their own expenditure; they possess barcodes that must be be scanned at the polling booths with tablets that cost up to £659 per station.
Similarly, proxy and postal voting trials run in Peterborough and Pendle required identification to be supplied before votes were counted. However, this is understandable as these forms of ballot come with the greatest risk to voting security.
It seems then that the United Kingdom has many considerations to debate when devising a solution to maximize both voter legitimacy and electoral inclusivity. Making an optional credential mandatory for voting in a nation that enshrines democratic elections in its constitution will always have repercussions. The U.K. Government will have to carefully consider the steps it takes at the next general election, to avoid the negative connotations of ballots past. For identity solutions providers, there may be the opportunity to leverage a part of existing product portfolios to ensure that countries that do not have mandatory identity documents are able to authenticate citizen voters. One such solution could be to leverage existing citizen databases to issue a derived solution, rather than using physical credentials or, alternatively, securely authenticating citizens by pairing a derived solution with a digital product.