Requiring voters to show ID may sound innocuous but it actually risks disenfranchising people and tilting elections
The majority of US states now have so called voter ID laws. These require someone arriving at a polling station to show a government issued identity document before they can vote. This might sound sensible but it poses all kind of problems. About 1 in 11 Americans eligible to vote don’t have any such ID. And even if they do they might lose it or forget it. When Nate Silver – the man who correctly predicted how every state would vote in the 2012 presidential election – looked at this question, he concluded that “although it is also possible to exaggerate the effects that these laws might have…….there is something of a consensus in the literature… that the stricter laws, like those that require photo identification, seem to decrease turnout by about 2 percent as a share of the registered voter population.”
This is particularly concerning because the groups whose turnout is most likely to be reduced the young, the disadvantaged and minorities are already underrepresented among those who turnout to vote.
Given that this is likely to have a significant effect, you could be forgiven for thinking it had arisen in response to a serious problem. However, a “nationwide analysis of more than 2,000 cases of alleged election fraud over the past dozen years shows that in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which has prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tougher voter ID laws, was virtually nonexistent.”
Given this, the real motivation behind these laws seems to be partisan politics. Virtually all of them were pushed by Republicans because those groups most likely to be disenfranchised tend to be Democrat supporters.
With this unfortunate American precedent in mind I was rather alarmed to see this:
Like in the US, there is little evidence that voter impersonation at polling stations is really a problem. The electoral commission itself admits that it is considering these proposals even though the millions of votes cast in 2012 gave rise to only 25 allegations of personation at a polling station – note that’s not a number of verified or even credible cases just allegations. The vast majority of complaints of electoral fraud are to do with campaigning, and those that relate to voting tend to be about postal voting.
These measures are especially unhelpful given that the Electoral Commission has suggested less dramatic alternatives such as giving presiding officers the power to require voters to sign for their ballots or confirm their date of birth. These would allow for after the fact investigations of fraud without interfering with people actually voting.
Were we to have Voted ID laws these would come on top of other measures already enacted that are likely to reduce turnout. Individual Electoral Registration will replace a system where a single form can be used to register a whole household with one that requires each voter to register themselves. The council ward I represent illustrates the problem with this. It is composed mostly of Oxford University colleges living in accommodation provided by their college. At present, the college as the ‘head of household’ registers anyone living in its accommodation who’s eligible to vote. Now each one of them needs to fill out a form themselves and if they forget they will find themselves disenfranchised.
Like in the US this is likely to have a partisan effect: “the Electoral Commission…raised concerns that students and young adults whose living situations are for more transient, could also lose out in the automatic transfer process as they were a harder group to match.” Given that younger people are much less likely to vote Conservative than their older peers, am I being cynical to suggest that there might be considerations apart from the integrity of the electoral process motivating these measures?
Hat tip: Mark Pack