At the local elections in May, voters were required to present photo ID for the first time in England. The changes to the law were introduced by the Conservative Government in the Elections Act 2022.
The change was criticised by opposition parties, charities and journalists who said the legislation was targeting a problem that didn’t exist, with “not a single proven case of in-person voter impersonation last year.” Many people were concerned that the change would lead to a mass disenfranchisement of vulnerable groups.
When it became clear that the Government wasn’t going to change its mind on voter ID, campaigners turned their efforts to raising awareness of the new rules. In December 2022, awareness of voter ID rules was just 22% of people. In February 2023, this figure was 63% and, immediately before polling day, it was 87%. This is a huge improvement that points to the success of public awareness campaigns. Interestingly, awareness for over-65s was a high at 98% – which the campaigns by our churches could have played a role in.
However, what is particularly concerning is that awareness was lowest among Black and minority ethnic communities and younger age groups – both at 82%. Overall, awareness among those without a form of ID was 74%, compared with 94% for those with. This suggests that while raising awareness was broadly successful, it failed to reach the groups that needed it the most.
It is difficult to give a precise figure for the number of people without acceptable photo ID, with estimates ranging from 925,000 to 3.5 million. If people did not have voter ID, they could apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate. Yet, there were only 89,500 applications made for a Voter Authority Certificate, and only 25,000 were used as ID on May 4.
Awareness of Voter Authority Certificates was much lower than awareness of the need for ID, at just 57%. The Electoral Commission said: “This means that just under half of people who did not have any other accepted ID did not know that they could have applied for a form of ID to enable them to vote on polling day.”
The Electoral Commission found that 14,000 people who tried to vote at a polling station were turned away for not having acceptable ID and did not return.
What is particularly concerning is findings from Democracy Volunteers’ observers who recorded that, of those turned away from polling stations for lacking ID, 53% were identified as ‘non-white passing’. Tom Brake, from Unlock Democracy, said: “This data confirms our prediction that as well as being damaging to our democracy, these unnecessary voter ID rules would be discriminatory too, having a particularly severe impact on ethnic minority voters”.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to accurately say how many people didn’t vote due to voter ID and the real figure is likely much higher. One reason for this is that many polling stations had ‘greeters’ placed outside to remind people of the need for ID. If someone left and didn’t return because they didn’t have ID, there is nowhere it would have been recorded.
Despite the mixed reactions to the rollout of voter ID, the scheme has since been quietly expanded. The Government recently announced plans to introduce identity checks for both postal and proxy votes.
This makes it ever more important that we continue to campaign for greater awareness of Voter ID and Voter Authority Certificates in the run up to the General Election next year. The local elections showed us that people are turned away, and that younger, Black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately impacted by this. It is important that a lesson is learnt from this and that we don’t see the same trends repeated in the General Election.
Local elections are an integral chance to influence our communities and priorities. Whether 14,000 sounds like a little or a lot to you, it represents voices that have been lost and failed by the systems designed to represent them. Every voice should count, and we lament the loss of participation brought about by voter ID.
Find out more here:
Read the Electoral Commission’s interim analysis of Voter ID.
 Figure for England, excluding London, where there were no elections.