Cautious government response to Pickles report rules out electoral ID card
As widely predicted, the Government has accepted in principle Sir Eric Pickles’ (pictured) call for voters to be required to identify themselves at polling stations. But it has ruled out introducing an electoral identity card and responded cautiously to to many of the former communities secretary’s proposals.
In a widely trailed response to the August report Securing the ballot, the Government has announced plans to pilot identity checks at interested local authorities for the 2018 local elections.
Applications will be invited from 18 local authority areas which the Electoral Commission considers “most at risk of allegations of electoral fraud”. These include Birmingham, Bradford and Luton, as well as the London borough of Tower Hamlets.
To test the impact of identity verification generally, the scheme will also invite applications from local authority areas where electoral fraud has not been identified as a risk.
To prove identities, the Government proposed two tiers of documentation: either an existing photo ID such as a passport or driving licence, or a signature and two other documents such as utility bills and a bank card with a signature. In all, a “variety of ID options” will be tested.
According to the response, the Government also considered arguments for a voluntary electoral identity card, along the lines of the one issued in Northern Ireland. But it found “significant obstacles” to introducing such a card by the 2018 elections. Among these is the danger of reviving controversy over the last Labour government’s plans for national ID cards.
“Importantly, as Sir Eric notes, the implementation of this model also needs to be balanced against the decision to rule out the introduction of a national identity card,” the response says
On taking measures to prevent intimidation of voters, it says “existing powers of returning officers and the police to deal with these issues, in the event that they arise, should be strengthened where appropriate”.
On Pickles’ proposal to create a new criminal offence of using a camera in a polling station, the response “considers this to be an issue that may more immediately be dealt with through stronger guidance and stringent application of secrecy provisions by returning officers and polling station staff”.
The response also takes a less hard line than Pickles on prohibiting the use of languages other and English or Welsh in polling stations.
“The Government takes the view that this issue can be delivered through stronger guidance and ensuring that polling stations staff are vigilant and follow guidance and procedure,” the response states.
Responding to Pickles’ call for tough measures against postal vote “harvesting”, the response states: “The Government will wish to consider the practical implications of the proposed measures… We will carefully consider how to deliver the ban on specified persons handling postal ballot papers, including enforcement and the creation of a new offence. We will discuss the issues with the Electoral Commission and electoral stakeholders.”
Cold water is also poured on Pickles' proposal for investigating the feasibility of automatically checking the nationality of people registering to vote. While the Government “acknowledges the vulnerability of the current electoral registration system as regards potential nationality fraud”, automated checking “would give rise to significant practical challenges”.
For example, there is no central register of UK nationals and not all UK nationals have British passports. “Such factors mean it would not be possible to provide for an automated nationality check in every case as a routine component of the electoral registration process.”
The response also rejects the idea of developing a facility to retain IP addresses used to make applications to register online, noting the difficulties of associating an IP address to a specific individual.
Introducing the response, constitution minister Chris Skidmore MP, said: “We are keen to promote positive benefits in the short term”, and this apparently rules out sudden major changes in the law.
Despite the caution, the Government’s response - released to the press on one of the quietest news days of the year, guaranteeing heavy coverage - has generated a critical response.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society campaign group, said: "There is simply no evidence to suggest that electoral fraud is widespread across the UK. Where it has occurred it has been isolated and should be tackled locally.
"Raising barriers to democratic participation could just put people off voting - and evidence from the US shows that it's generally those already most excluded from the political process that are worst affected by strict ID laws."