Conservative ministers have “opened themselves” up to the charge that a new voter identification scheme is designed to benefit the Tory party, according to the head of the UK elections watchdog.
John Pullinger, chair of the Electoral Commission, warned that the “very, very tight” rules that will force voters to carry ID at this year’s general election risked disenfranchising certain groups.
“The photo ID requirement is clearly proving more of a barrier to some people than others,” Pullinger told the Financial Times in a wide-ranging interview, in which he warned that young people were being put off voting by the “bad behaviour” of politicians. He also raised concerns about female candidates being targeted with “deepfake” pornography.
The voter ID system was first introduced under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the local elections in England in May last year. The government allows 22 forms of ID, including rail cards, for older people, who are more likely to vote Conservative, while similar cards for young people, who typically lean towards Labour, are not permitted.
Ministers have pointed out the government has offered a free voter ID for people who do not have another permissible document. ID has been mandatory in Northern Ireland elections since 1985.
Pullinger said the commission, which is responsible for regulating political finance and overseeing elections, accepted the principle of mandatory voter ID as strengthening the security of elections.
However, he said the watchdog had recommended the government widen the list of accepted documents and proposed allowing people with acceptable ID to “vouch” for another voter, a system used in some other countries.
He also noted an attempt by Tory peer Lord David Willetts to introduce a “broader list” of admissible IDs. Willetts had highlighted the low level of impersonation at polling stations in the UK at previous elections.
Pullinger said the government had rejected the move, citing the security of elections. “I think readers will need to draw their own judgment about that,” he added.
About 14,000 people, or 0.25 per cent of people who tried to vote, were turned away from polling booths because they did not have the correct ID at the local elections in May, according to the commission’s research. Its survey of people who did not vote in the elections found that 4 per cent cited the photo ID requirements as the reason.
“The proportion was significantly higher among disabled people, unemployed people and some other groups,” said Pullinger.
If a consequence of bolstering UK election security was “to disenfranchise particular people”, then “we should do better”, he said, though he accepted it was “too late” to make changes for the general election expected this year.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said that international election watchdogs had recommended the UK-wide introduction of voter ID, which was already a “longstanding arrangement” in Northern Ireland, adding that the government was “committed to ensuring everyone has the opportunity to have their say in our democracy”.
Pullinger also hit out at Sunak’s government over its decision to publish a strategy and policy statement on what ministers believe the commission’s priorities should be; it is set to be voted on by MPs and peers.
“We think this is a bad provision and should be repealed,” Pullinger said, warning that it threatened the perception of the watchdog’s independence. “A statement of guidance is incompatible with the idea of an independent body,” he added.
Pullinger was appointed chair of the Electoral Commission in 2021. He previously served as the UK national statistician and the librarian of the House of Commons.
He said he was eager for the government to amend the “troubling anomaly” that political parties were not subject to the same anti-money laundering regulations as businesses and charities.
A heavier burden of duty should be placed on parties to know where their donations were coming from to counter the “significantly downward” trend of public confidence in the transparency of political finance in recent years.
At present, a company can make a donation to a UK political party so long as it is registered with Companies House and carrying out some business in the UK, even if the gift is larger than the sum of money that the company has made in the UK.
“That just doesn’t seem to sit well with a regime which says we should have donations to British politics from British money, British entities, British people who’ve got the right to vote,” said Pullinger.
Pullinger said he was also “concerned” by the growing ambivalence of young people towards elections, who were increasingly asking “what’s the point” of casting a vote.
Factors included the “bad behaviour” of MPs, following a torrent of sleaze and sexual misconduct stories in recent years, as well as a lack of understanding about how the political system worked, he said.
About 8mn people — 16 per cent of all eligible voters — are missing from the electoral register. For future election cycles, Pullinger wants to examine automating the process by which people are added to the register, which could happen when someone is granted a national insurance number or moves house.
Ahead of the campaign this year, Pullinger was particularly disturbed by the rise of deepfake pornography involving political figures, “which inevitably is going to be much more targeted towards female candidates”.
He cited “very, very horrible testimony from elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly about how their images had been deepfaked and how they had been spread and seen by their children”, adding that it was at the “extreme end of a level of nastiness” that should not be tolerated.
Recent post-election research conducted by the watchdog had shown “worrying levels” of other forms of “abuse, intimidation and threats to candidates”, Pullinger said, warning that it could weaken the pipeline of people willing to put themselves forward to run for office.
Artificial intelligence-generated disinformation was another threat to the integrity of the election. While he said the media would play an important role in calling out deepfakes, Pullinger warned that they might nonetheless “block out the real campaign”.
He said: “It’s clear that the motivation for some of the fakes is not to try and persuade people [of their veracity], but to get people talking about the fake, which itself then crowds out other news.”