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Boris Johnson drinking from a mug.

Boris Johnson: if even the prime minister who introduced voter ID can forget his, do we need a rethink?

Former prime minister Boris Johnson was reportedly turned away on election day after arriving at his polling station to vote with only “an envelope with his name and address on it”. He was informed that under the new rules, brought about by his government, he could not vote.

Johnson did eventually return to the polling station with the right form of ID and was able to vote, but the debacle presents more than just difficult optics for British democracy. The UK has a general election on the very near horizon. If even a former prime minister is having difficulty casting a ballot in a local election, is it time for a rethink of the rules?

Another case playing out as Johnson was presumably looking for his driver’s licence was that of Adam Diver, who had spent 27 years serving his country in the army. He said on Twitter that he had arrived at his local polling station to be told that he did not have an accepted form of identification. His veteran ID card was not on the list of acceptable forms of ID and he would not be able to exercise his democratic right to vote.

Johnny Mercer MP, a Conservative party minister whose government introduced the new voter identification law, quickly apologised to Diver. The list of acceptable forms of identification was published before veterans ID cards started coming out in January this year, so before this election, he said. “I will do all I can to change it before the next one”. Small consolation for Diver.

What are the voter ID rules?

The Elections Act 2022, which came into force during Johnson’s tenure, introduced new requirements for citizens to present ID at UK general elections and some local elections. Prior to this, no form of identification was required in England, Wales and Scotland.

Accepted forms of identification include passports and driving licences but also a range of other options. If citizens don’t have identification, then they can apply for a free voter authority certificate, provided that they do so before the deadline (which was April 25 for these local elections).

The proposals first came from a 2016 report on “electoral fraud”, written by former Conservative party chairman Eric Pickles. The stated aim of the new laws was to reduce the chance of people impersonating others to steal their vote. But the reality is that impersonation in polling stations, the problem which voter identification is proposed to fix, is very rare.

Data from the Electoral Commission shows that in 2019, a general election year, there were two convictions or cautions for someone voting by pretending to be someone else. Research on the nature of problems in polling stations finds that the more significant problem is that many voters arrive to find that their name is not on the electoral register on polling day.

Many citizens are often already turned away because they miss the registration deadline or misunderstand the registration voting process. These, it might be argued, are more pressing problems to address than impersonation.

It’s not just former prime ministers

The evidence is also clear that voter identification requirements cause many eligible citizens to not vote on election day. My study with Alistair Clark at Newcastle University from the 2023 local elections found that 70% of poll workers turned away at least one voter because they did not have an acceptable form of identification.

The government’s own research showed that 9% of the public do not have in-date and recognisable identification. The availability of identification is lower amongst those with a severely limiting disability, the unemployed and those without educational qualifications.

A sign reading 'welcome to your polling station' and another reading 'you will need photo ID to vote today'.
Voters were reminded to bring ID in an information campaign. Alamy/Maureen McLean

The experience of not being able to vote can be distressing, as can having to block someone from voting. As one poll worker described in one of our studies: “Women were turned away because they got married and changed their names, then their ID and register names were different”. The worker said they felt this was gender discrimination and added: “I’m quite upset that I’ve turned voters away and particularly discriminating against women.”

Voter identification could be made to work with minimal effect on turnout if sufficient safeguards are introduced to still ensure that eligible electors could vote. As I said in evidence I gave to parliament while these laws were being put together, compromise is possible.

Citizens without voter ID on the day could, for example, be allowed a provisional vote, casting a ballot into a separate box which could be included in the total later on if they come back with ID later on. This is a common practice in the US and ensures citizens have an opportunity to still vote. That said, it does cause delays in counting and doesn’t solve the problem for people without ID.

A second option would involve being flexible about the form of voter identification. Voter identification requirements comes in many forms around the globe.

Some countries are strict about having a photo, while others, such as Canada, accept dozens of different forms of ID. Even the Pickles report, which the government was heavily leaning on, suggests that utility bills could be included.

The UK can learn a lot from Canada, including by borrowing from their “vouching” approach. This system allows one citizen who has ID to vouch for another who doesn’t by signing an affidavit confirming their identity.

This provides a clear paper trail linked to registered voters so that any suspicions of irregularities can be investigated. It also ensures that many citizens without identification, or those who feel uncomfortable providing it, can still cast their vote. Family, friends and neighbours can help one another to participate.

Roughly 1% of the population use this as a way to ensure they can still vote. If vouching was allowed at a UK general election, it could therefore enable roughly half a million people to vote.

The reasons for not having voter identification can be varied. They range from just forgetting on election day to having the wrong idea about what’s acceptable, as in the case of the former prime minister. Some reasons, such as people not having the right ID, reflect underlying inequalities in society.

With a general election on the way, millions of people will be headed to the polls. Relatively easy reforms, such as “vouching”, are needed to make sure that everyone can cast their vote, including Boris Johnson.

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