October 15, 2019

The Tories have used the Queen’s Speech to announce that, in the future, all voters should need to present photographic ID in order to be given their ballot paper. This proposal is supposed to prevent “personation” fraud: that is, someone literally turning up at a polling station and pretending to be someone they’re not. It’s been described as a “blatant attempt to rig the election”.

I was going to write a piece saying that it is a cynical move solely intended to disenfranchise potential Labour voters; having spoken to some people, I am going to be a bit more circumspect, and say that it may simply be stupid.

Let’s start with the scale of the problem the move is intended to fix, shall we? In 2018, according to the Electoral Commission, there was one conviction for electoral fraud in the UK. In 2017, there was another one. Only one of those – the 2017 one – was for personation. Between 1983 and 2015 there were a grand total of 79 convictions for personation in England and Wales, according to a 2017 FOI release. That suggests to me that there is not exactly a huge problem to be fixed here.

But Stuart Wilks-Heeg, of the University of Liverpool’s politics department, pointed out to me that it’s not always been the case. There was, for a long time, a major personation problem, which was largely solved with voter ID – in Northern Ireland.

The way Wilks-Heeg tells it, the situation sounds genuinely comic. The parties would have copies of the electoral roll, marked with information on who probably wouldn’t vote, or who would be on holiday, or who might vote late. Then they would send groups of people to each constituency – preferably girls under the age of 18, so the law would be lenient if they were caught – with disguises: wigs, glasses, and so on. And they’d go and say “I’m X, from number Y, whatever street” and cast a vote in their name.

It was a well-organised and large-scale operation. At the 1983 General Election, 149 people were arrested and 104 prosecuted in Northern Ireland for personation. There were 949 “tendered ballots”, that is, people turning up and finding their vote had already been made. There were claims that 20% of Sinn Fein’s votes were fraudulent – although it had in fact been the Ulster Unionist Party who’d been the first enthusiastic adopters of personation.

In 1985, voter ID was made a requirement; it led to a decline in personation fraud, but some still carried on, using fake ID, so in 2002 the law was changed to mandate photo ID. Now there really isn’t any personation.

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In Great Britain, there has been an issue with voter fraud, of comparable scale and seriousness to the Northern Ireland personation problem. It has been found disproportionately among British Asian communities, especially those from Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Some local communities are organised along kinship lines, forming groups called “Biraderi”, or brotherhoods. These clan-like organisations are an important part of the social support network for many British Asians, and often have their roots in very local parts of the groups’ ancestral countries; a local clan in Birmingham might stem from a particular village in Kashmir, for instance. The groups are quite hierarchical, and often vote in blocs.

This makes them a powerful voting force. The since-disgraced Liberal MP Cyril Smith was one of the first to realise the power of the British Asian vote, says Wilks-Heeg, and he courted it. Later, George Galloway, when he ran for the seat of Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005, made a trip to Bangladesh to seek the endorsement of tribal elders there, so that he could rely on the votes of the large Bangladeshi minority in Tower Hamlets.

And it is undeniably the case that some of these Biraderi have engaged in major, large-scale voting fraud. Tower Hamlets was also the scene for shocking corruption in the 2000s; the mayor, Lutfur Rahman, was removed from office in 2015 for “corrupt and illegal practices”. There were other, less high-profile incidents. Wilks-Heeg, in a 2008 paper for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, notes several convictions in Oldham, Blackburn and Birmingham among other places in the early 2000s.

However, the fraud – while impressive – involved postal votes, the process for which had been liberalised by the Blair government, and some proxy voting, and some good old-fashioned ballot-stuffing. Personation was not a factor, and voter ID wouldn’t have helped with that at all. There have been crackdowns on postal voting fraud since then, but Wilks-Heeg says that, if he were to try to rig an election in the UK – for the record, I don’t think he’s going to – he’d still start with postal votes.

Nonetheless, post-Rahman and so on, the Electoral Commission got unnerved by the idea that these “voting factories” could turn to personation, as they did in Northern Ireland. The numbers never got very high – according to the FOI release I mentioned earlier, the highest total of convictions was 11 in 1995 – but Wilks-Heeg says they thought that the British electoral system was vulnerable to personation fraud, because of the lack of any ID requirement. So in 2014 they recommended that the rest of the UK follow Northern Ireland and start mandating some form of ID.

The feared rise in personation never manifested itself, but in 2018, trials were carried out into requiring various forms of ID. The trials were small-scale, but they were fairly successful. People were turned away (Wilks-Heeg, who took part in the research, says he saw it happen), but relatively rarely, and most of those who were turned away came back later with ID.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with voter ID schemes, says Will Jennings, a professor of politics at the University of Southampton. Most EU countries have them. But, he points out, they also have national ID cards, which we don’t – we had that conversation in the early years of this century, and we emphatically didn’t want them. So, for photo ID, we’d be relying on drivers’ licences or passports, and the sort of people who are less likely to have those forms of ID are the sort of people – low income, often from ethnic minorities – who don’t tend to vote Tory.

So it looks bad coming from a Tory government, and raises the same sort of eyebrow that Republican “voter suppression” raises in the US. Changes to the rules of the electoral game are always controversial, and in the past, the convention has been that such changes get bipartisan consensus before going before Parliament. Even Blair’s postal voting changes did, and he didn’t need to because he had a massive great majority. Putting it in a Queen’s Speech without first seeking that consensus is unconventional at best.

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It’s also very weird timing. The trials were small and of course only looked at local elections, because they were the only ones that happened that year. Turnouts at local elections are much smaller and don’t look the same as turnouts at generals – the voters are usually older, and more politically informed. And the trials were of different kinds – some required photo ID, some required two utility bills, a few allowed polling cards or other ID – so that’s even less data relevant to the specific “photo ID only” version the government is proposing. “We just don’t have enough data from the pilots,” says Wilks-Heeg. “To jump from that to doing it across the board, it’s too much, too soon.”

Even more weirdly, there are two parliamentary committees looking into electoral law: a House of Commons select committee inquiry and a House of Lords committee looking into the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. Both have finished accepting submissions and will probably submit their reports in the next year or so. It’s strange that the government has leapt ahead to do the voter ID thing rather than waiting for them to reach their conclusions and, as Wilks-Heeg puts it, “bring forward legislation which addresses all of these issues as a totality rather than just this on its own”.

So: why are they doing it? The idea that it’s an attempt to “rig the election” seems unlikely, according to both Wilks-Heeg and Jennings. The number of people turned away was small, in the hundreds. That’s not negligible – and the Financial Times’s John Burn-Murdoch points out that it would probably skew the vote towards the Tories – but Jennings thinks that the sort of seat that it would most affect, inner cities with large British Asian populations, tend to have Labour majorities in the tens of thousands. Turning away at most one or two percent of the vote, most but not all of whom would vote Labour, probably isn’t going to make all that much difference, he thinks; certainly it’s not obvious that it would.

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Since none of these measures are going to make it through Parliament anyway – the government has a majority of minus 43 – and the Queen’s Speech is essentially acting as a sneak preview of the Tory manifesto for the inevitable winter election, I had a hypothesis that the voting registration thing was a cynical attempt to drum up support from the sort of person who is panicking about blocs of Pakistani voters committing electoral fraud.

But Jennings pointed out that even that was pretty unlikely. It might appeal to a few Brexit Party voters, but in the end, they’re going to vote on the basis of Brexit, or perhaps immigration; electoral fraud is a pretty niche issue. It could, he said, be “a Dave Brailsford approach to politics”, the marginal-gains approach to which British cycling credited its 2012 successes (along with asthma medication), but he doubts it.

It’s more likely, he said, that it’s just a badly thought-through attempt to fix a non-existent problem. We tend to import our moral panics from the US these days, like campus free speech, and often the culture war stuff doesn’t map neatly from there to here. But with the rise of a general paranoid attitude in British politics, everyone has got nervous about the legitimacy of our politics; everyone’s always running to the Electoral Commission or the Met Police with something or other, about Cambridge Analytica or Vote Leave spending or whatever, and this is just an extension of that. Our politicians don’t have to be Macchiavelian puppet-masters, they can be short-sighted panicky dimwits like the rest of us.

The concern, though, is that – as in the US – we end up losing faith in our electoral system, seeing this fraud everywhere we look, and – again as in the US – challenging every result in the courts. That’s not a positive place to be, and even the appearance of deliberately disenfranchising ethnic minorities for political gain is going to be a bad thing for our political system.

The Queen’s Speech proposal includes provision for free ID cards for voters. A previous version of this piece suggested it did not.