UK ministers plan to widen the forms of photo identification that voters can present at polling stations in future, as concerns grow that the requirement to show an ID card may have reduced participation in Thursday’s local elections in England.
Voters have for the first time been legally obliged to produce proof of identity in order to cast a ballot — a move criticised by campaigners as “disproportionate” in view of historically low levels of in-person electoral fraud.
Pressure groups and some voters on Thursday reported people being turned away from polling stations for lack of ID in different parts of England.
Jess Garland, director of policy at the Electoral Reform Society, said there had been “countless examples” of disenfranchisement, “from people caught out by having the wrong type of photo ID to others turned away for not looking enough like their photo”.
“One voter turned away is one voter too many,” she added.
Tor Udall, an author, wrote on Twitter: “Cried at the polling station this morning as the old lady in front of me, who had struggled to walk there, was turned away. She had photo ID but not the right version.”
Whether the ID policy has suppressed voting patterns will become clearer only once councils announce their results along with data on local turnouts on Friday. The Electoral Commission, Britain’s elections watchdog, will not release official figures on turnout for weeks.
Government aides said the list of acceptable forms of ID had been restricted to ensure it did not overwhelm returning officers performing ID checks for the first time.
But it is likely to expand at subsequent elections if turnout is shown to have fallen in Thursday’s elections, Tory officials said. That would be a U-turn in government policy, after ministers last month overturned a House of Lords amendment that would have widened the range of acceptable documents.
In Swindon, the returning officer said only “a couple of folk” had been turned away, asking them to go home and return with acceptable ID.
But among voters there was palpable anger about the policy, with one IT consultant describing it as “a form of disenfranchisement” that was unnecessary given the insignificant levels of voter ID fraud.
Mary Loadman, a 55-year-old retail manager, said she had only heard about the policy change on the news earlier in the week and that “it might put some people off voting”.
Kevin Hoadley, a 54-year-old carer, agreed that the policy was likely to reduce turnout. “I think it’s wholly unnecessary and straight out of the American conservative playbook,” he said.
Estimates of voters without eligible ID range from 925,000 to 2mn. The government offered a free voter authority certificate to people applying online who lacked another approved document, but only 89,502 had done so by last week’s deadline.
At present, 22 forms of ID meet the eligibility criteria, including passports, driving licences and disability blue badges.
Peers last month backed an amendment from former Tory minister Lord David Willetts that proposed to allow people to prove their identity with other documents, such as library cards, birth certificates and prepayment meter cards.
But it was overturned in the Commons, although Cabinet Office minister Lord Nicholas True said the government was already considering “potential future additions” to the list including a veteran’s card and the national rail railcard.
Some campaigners have questioned why Oyster travel cards issued to people aged 60 and over are acceptable forms of ID to vote but Oyster travel cards issued to 18 years are not, noting that older voters are more likely to vote Tory.
Ministers argue that an over-60 Oyster card is a more appropriate ID card because obtaining one involves presenting a passport or a driving licence.
Allies of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have played down suggestions that the new voter ID rules will disproportionately hit his party’s vote.
At a polling station outside Forest Park primary school in Stoke-on-Trent, locals were largely relaxed about the new rules.
Shazad Khan, monitoring the vote for Labour, said the only problem he had encountered was some people forgetting to bring ID to polling stations.
“The consensus seems to be that it’s better because obviously then there can’t be any dodgy votes or anything like that,” he said.
Critics of the policy change will keep a close eye on turnout figures to see if they show a decline on previous sets of local elections.
But Clive Betts, a Labour MP and chair of the Commons levelling up committee, said the Electoral Commission had admitted it would struggle to work out precisely how many people had been turned away for lack of ID.
“It appears that the government has designed a system which denies the prospect of sensible and co-ordinated information collection and makes it almost impossible to judge the true impact of the introduction of voter ID,” he said.