Being able to vote in an election, to choose the people that decide the laws by which we should abide, or who commit us to war or set the taxes that we must pay is a right that our forebears have made great sacrifices to procure and protect. It is a solemn undertaking when we exercise our vote, one that we should treat in all seriousness, for we are not just casting a ballot on behalf of ourselves, but also in the knowledge that our choice may impact irrevocably on others.
It is, therefore, important that the ballot is, in every respect, beyond reproach; that we know it has not been tampered with and could not have been subverted to the benefit of any one candidate or a party’s candidates. Seeking to skew an election is not an easy task and while the aftermath of British elections has on occasion led to isolated examples of accusations about individuals or certain groups exploiting seeming weaknesses in our procedures, instances of malpractice or deliberate cunning that have led to prosecutions are, thankfully, rare.
Following the last General Election concerns were raised that young students were encouraged to cast their votes twice by voting once from their home address and again using a second term-time address. To do so would have been illegal, and while the police investigated some 70 specific reports in the end only one successful prosecution was brought against Mohammed Zain Qureshi. He had voted twice from his home address by registering two different versions of his name and thus obtaining two polling cards.
Nevertheless it is not as if we have not had difficulties with personation or double voting before. For decades the joke that in Northern Ireland voters were encouraged to “vote early, and vote often” by using the names of dead relatives that might still be on the electoral roll was believed to have some substance. In 2002 a Northern Ireland opinion survey showed 66 per cent believed “electoral fraud is very common in some areas” whilst 64 per cent thought in some areas it was “enough to change the election results”.
After the Labour government passed its Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act in 2002 – requiring voters to present photographic proof of identity – comparative surveys of returning officers in 2001 and 2003 indicated the percentage who reported seeing people vote more than once had decreased from 3 per cent to 0.1 per cent. Those experiencing being turned away because someone had already voted in their name declined from 4 per cent to 1 per cent and those presented with documents they suspected to be forgeries declined from 3 per cent to 0.2 per cent.
It was also noticeable that in a number of constituencies the turnout fell noticeably compared to others, strongly suggesting that in those particular divisions there had been organised false registrations and personation of voters who could no longer prove themselves if they turned up to vote.
The arrival of social media and the quick mass communication of ideas (often anonymously) has caused special concern that voters with a particular axe to grind or agenda to pursue – be they of extreme left or right wing views – could organise groups to use personation to secure results to their advantage.
It is not then, on the basis of particular hard evidence that the Electoral Commission and current government has brought forward proposals that to vote in future general elections shall require photographic evidence (with some exceptions). Rather its is to protect the perception of credibility.
The electorate’s confidence could be undermined by what it is currently possible to achieve by the informal and even covert co-ordination that social media can allow. For any election to be beyond doubt we must all be comfortable that individual constituencies that could swing the establishment of a government have not been illegally procured by one side or another.
To establish how practical arrangements can be made the Electoral Commission is running trials requiring proof of identity in five boroughs of Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking during the English council elections this May. The rules for Scottish Parliament and municipal elections are set at Holyrood and there appears to be no plans to require photographic proof of identity for those, but the UK General Election could end up being different.
This may all appear relatively uncontroversial, after all, who could object to being asked for proof of identity for such an important act? Nevertheless the Electoral Reform Society and some charities are calling for the reform to be abandoned on the basis that minority groups will be put at a disadvantage and may be discouraged from voting.
This view is perverse. Today it is not unusual to be asked for proof of identity when we collect a package from the Royal Mail, when we buy alcohol or tobacco, when we are driving or hiring a car, when we open a bank account, when we collect certain welfare benefits. That voting for our Member of Parliament should currently not require us to prove we are exercising our right because we are indeed the person we claim to be has is a modern day anachronism and absurdity.
It is not as if the government is being uncompromising, for it is allowing a wide range of documents that can be used, from the obvious passport or driving licence, to a combination of bills and other official letters that carry a person’s name and address. Failing that the government scheme allows the opportunity to apply for a free special identity paper that can be presented at the polling station.
In the last few weeks the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has been stepping up his criticisms of the government’s plans to require proof of identity. What might otherwise seem innocent enough is unfortunately highly coloured by the fact that one of his leading campaign advisers, Marsha-Jane Thomson, was convicted on 19 counts of electoral fraud including the forging of signatures in the London Borough of Newham.
What do people have to fear from proving who they are before choosing our lawmakers? What does Jeremy Corbyn have to fear from his electors being genuine people that have only voted once?
I see no need for showing proof of identity when walking down the street, but when voting for our government it is not too much to ask.
Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org