Voter ID in Britain? A Note of Caution from Academic Research

New Research on Individual Electoral Registration - Policy ImplicationsVoter ID in Britain is being put forward to fix the problem of voter fraud.  Toby James claims that there is little evidence of widespread voter fraud.  Rather, research shows that voter identification requirements might restrict turnout unevenly across British society and is the policy option that is likely to be considered strategically by the main political parties.  

The Sunday Times has reported that the voter ID proposals are being considered by the government.  The Electoral Commission has been reviewing electoral fraud in Britain and will publish its report tomorrow.  According to The Sunday Times, it will propose that citizens should show identification such as their passport or driving licence to prove their identity at polling stations.

My research shows some evidence of declining confidence in the process of casting a vote.  Speaking to electoral administrators recently, many explained that citizens expect tight security procedures around the voting process.  We have passwords and verification processes for banking and other services.  It therefore surprises citizens that they can arrive without any form of identification (not even their polling card).  But is there actually any voter fraud? And what other effects might voter identification have?

Elite Statecraft and Election Administration considers the politics of election admnistration in the UK, USA and Ireland

Elite Statecraft and Election Administration considers the politics of election admnistration in the UK, USA and Ireland

Is there really evidence of electoral fraud?

There have been some cases of fraud in Britain, for sure.  Stuart Wilks-Heeg recently analysed the number of people found guilty of electoral malpractice in the UK.  The most famous case of electoral fraud was in 2004 when judge, presiding over the case declared that the ‘evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic.’  This headline has been banded around again and again by journalists, academics and commentators.

However, it is very feasible that the problem of electoral fraud is of one smoke without fire.  Voter fraud is commonly claimed to be widespread in the US.  Systematic studies, however, show that voter fraud almost non-existent.  One study has suggested that as many people commit voter fraud, as think that they have been abducted by aliens.  No, really.

Is Voter ID voter suppression?

Requirements to produce passports and other forms of identification may sound reasonable enough, but they will have unintended (or perhaps intended?  See below) consequences.  They stop people voting.  Imagine this scenario.  You decide to vote on the way back from work.  But after a busy day you realise that you forgot your passport.  What do you do?  Head back home, collect your passport and then vote?  The answer for many citizens would be head home and stay there.  That extra time is the difference between voting and not voting.  Most studies do show that voter turnout is adversely affected by voter ID requirements.  It will be interesting to see whether such academic research will have been included in the Electoral Commission’s review.

A decline in turnout is unpalatable for democracy in Britain, especially given that so few of us vote already.  However, the problem is more than that.  Studies from the US show that some people are more likely to have the forms of ID that state governments require than others.  This means that introducing voter ID can introduce a systematic bias against particular groups.  In the US these groups are racial and ethnic minority groups, those on lower incomes or with lower education qualifications.  Is there a reason to think that a British system would have different results?

The Politics of Voter ID

There is an even bigger problem.  As my book shows,  those that support voter ID and do not support voter ID have a difference: a partisan difference.  There is a rich history of US politicians using burdensome administrative requirements to try to win elections. Close elections can be won, as much by demobilising your opposition supporters, as mobilising your own supporters.  Republican politicians have therefore admitted that voter ID has been a tactic to be deployed to win them power.  Analysts agree that attempts to introduce voter ID are  ‘highly partisan, strategic and racialized’.

As I show in my book, politicians in Britain have been slower to the game.  Electoral administration laws remained unchanged for much of the twentieth century.  However, New Labour began to think that there was some partisan advantage in making it easier for people to vote and therefore changed electoral law accordingly.  Some Labour politicians thought that the higher turnout that all-postal voting and similar schemes would bring, would give them an advantage since it would get their voters out.  It was also a more politically convenient approach to solving the ‘turnout problem’  than electoral system reform.  The Conservatives have pushed the opposite approach: tightening up on  ‘voter fraud’ by introducing individual registration, despite the risk that registration levels will decline.   Further research might be able to say whether it has been partisan advantage that has driven the Conservative approach as well.  However, we can expect the largest two parties to take risk adverse positions on this issue and consider their electoral interests very carefully.

Caution is Required 

In short, there are concerns about voter fraud.  But unless the Electoral Commission reveals evidence of widespread systematic fraud, we still do not know how significant this problem really is.  We can expect that voter ID could reduce turnout unevenly, and party positions on the policy issue will be electorally motivated.  We frankly need more research.  And if Voter ID is to be considered, it should be trialled before becoming widespread.

This was originally posted on the University of East Anglia’s Politics Blog.


Election 2012 shows that problems with US election administration remain

Barack Obama has been re-elected as President of the United States.  Thankfully, there is a winner with a significant margin meaning that there is not a repeat of 2000.  Twelve years ago the result was decided by the US Supreme Court after the controversy over ‘hanging chads’ and ‘butterfly ballots’ in Florida.

However, had the election been tighter, would this have been the case?

What is clear is that problems remain with the administration of elections in the US.  Across the country, lengthy queues formed at polling stations. An election official from the Marion County Election Board, Indianapolis, Indiana tweeted a picture (below) demonstrating the length of queues forming at one polling station.   Did voters patiently wait or vote, or did the queue deter them?  ‘[W]e did lose a few who didn’t want to wait’, admitted the election official.

Embedded image permalink
Queues form in Indianapolis, IN. Source: Marion County (IN) Election Board
Elsewhere, there was widespread confusion in Philadelphia.  Republicans had sought to introduce a voter ID law but a judge ruled that implementation should wait until after the Presidential election.  Widespread confusion ensued among voters and poll staff.  Was ID required or not (in fact, it was needed only for first time voters)?  There were reports that some poll workers and ‘election observers’ were deliberately asking for voter ID, even though it was not required.  One tweeter (below) posted a picture of these signs that they found and took down.
Embedded image permalink
Voter ID signs in PA
The US, often held up as a pillar of democracy, has a darker side to its elections.  Often these problems are a result of deliberate strategies of vote suppression.  Politicians and their agents perceive that they can gain electoral advantage from discouraging their opponents’ supporters to vote. Voter ID laws have been shown to be particularly ‘effective’ at reducing turnout among certain populations.  They are also a useful method for threatening voters at polling stations.

Another tactic is deliberately under-funding election boards.  The Marion County Election Board, referred to above, complained that they wanted more poll sites, but ‘Republicans had vetoed our resolution for more at each election since 2010’ (sic).  In Florida 2000, it was areas dominated by Democrat voters that saw the greatest queues form – areas which suffered from under-funding.  Republican politicians held the purse-strings.

Problems are not always caused deliberately.  They can stem from failures of electoral management.  Poor planning on behalf of electoral officials and a lack of training can lead to problems for the voters.  Some polling stations, including some in Ohio, ran out of ballot papers.  In Miami-Dade County, host to the problems in 2000, scanning machines broke down leaving voters to queue for hours. Further problems will problem emerge over the coming weeks.

There is an urgent need to understand how failures of electoral management can be avoided (or reduced).  They are not the reserve of newly democratising countries or electoral autocracies such as Russia.  They also take place in the US, and, as scenes from the 2010 general election demonstrated, the UK.  The UK Electoral Commission has developed some strategies for improving election administration which my research has suggested has had some positive effects.  However, academics and policy makers should work together to find ways to improve elections.  Efforts to suppress legitimate voters require rigorous scrutiny from the media and public.

Thankfully, the 2012 election appears to have been decided by the voters, not the administration of votes.  But things could have been very different.