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Just a Fraction of Voters Who Lack Photo ID Apply for ‘Free’ Identification – In Warning Sign for Mayoral Elections

Low take-up of the Government’s Voter Authority Certificate poses a risk to voters in May’s local elections, campaigners warn

At least 14,000 people missed out on their right to vote after being turned away for lack of ID last year. Photo: Stephen Frost/Alamy

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Barely a tenth of voters who lack photo ID are likely to have applied for the Government’s free form of identification ahead of next week’s local elections, according to analysis of official figures. 

Research by the Electoral Commission shows that people who are unemployed, people with disabilities, and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are least likely to have an accepted form of ID, and should therefore apply for the free voter ID – a Voter Authority Certificate (VAC).

But analysis by campaign group Unlock Democracy shows that, despite a slight uptick in recent applications for the free ID, the number of applications is half of what it was over the same 100-day period ahead of the 2023 local elections. This is despite more voters being expected to head to the polls this year for many councils in England, as well as mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners.

Between mid-January last year and 25 April 2023, 89,654 applications were made for a VAC. In the same time period to the 24 April this year, just 41,792 people have applied.

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The Government’s own research in 2021 found that 4% of eligible voters do not have an approved photographic ID – equivalent to more than 1.68 million people in England and Wales. While that figure may have declined in the time since, Unlock Democracy estimates that 1.5 million voters are still likely to lack necessary photo ID to vote.

The deadline to apply for a VAC passes at 5pm today, 24 April. 

Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy, said: “Today’s figures are an unhappy reminder that voter ID will once more rob huge numbers of eligible voters of their rights. The Government’s Voter Authority Certificate scheme has proven itself a total failure.

“We already know from last May what the impact of voter ID will be – many thousands prevented from voting, disproportionately young and disabled people and voters from minority backgrounds. Worse, with several high-profile mayoral contests taking place this year, the damage will only be greater. 

“Voter ID is an unnecessary, discriminatory and costly failure that’s damaging UK democracy. It should be abandoned before even greater damage is done at the general election.”

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Ahead of today’s 5pm deadline, Craig Westwood, director of communication, policy and research at the Electoral Commission, said: “The free ID helps ensure that everyone is able to take part in the May elections, even if they don’t currently have an accepted form of photo ID.

“The process of applying doesn’t take long and there is information and support available from the Electoral Commission and your local authority. And if you have friends or family who don’t have an accepted form of photo ID, please spread the word.” 

If people miss today’s deadline, they can still apply in time for the general election.

The VAC scheme was set up with the aim of ensuring that people without a qualifying ID would still be able to cast their vote at a polling station.

The Electoral Commission found that around 4% of all people who said they did not vote at last May’s local elections listed voter ID requirements as the reason – calculated to be around 740,000 people. 

More than 14,000 people were also recorded as being turned away from polling stations and failing to return due to voter ID in last year’s English local elections. But, as a recent DLUHC report concluded, the actual number of people who could not vote is likely to be much higher. 

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Urban areas such as London, where high-profile mayoral contests boost turnout, are likely to be hard-hit by the voter ID policy. A report last September by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution described the voter ID system as “poisoned cure”.

Ministers have long insisted that the introduction of voter ID is to make elections safer. However, out of 58 million votes cast across three elections in 2019, there were only 33 allegations of the type of voter fraud that the voter ID scheme could have prevented, with only one resulting in a conviction, Unlock Democracy notes.

It is estimated that the policy will cost up to £120 million over a decade to implement, due to the need for extra staff, training, larger polling cards, advertising the policy, and the roll-out of the free ID scheme.  

Recent polling found that 16% of voting age respondents in Britain were not aware of voter ID requirements – equivalent to around five million people. Among 18 to 24 year-olds, the figure rises to 27%, more than one in four. 

Accepted forms of photo ID include a UK, European Economic Area (EEA) or Commonwealth passport; UK or EEA drivers’ licence; and some concessionary travel passes, such as an UK government-funded older person’s bus pass or an Oyster 60+ card. Voters can use expired ID if they are still recognisable from the photo.

There has been considerable criticism of the larger number of forms of ID accepted for older voters, but almost none designed for young people. 

Applications for the free ID can be submitted online or by completing a paper form and sending it to the local council’s electoral services team. Voters must provide a photo, their full name, date of birth, the address at which they are registered to vote, and their National Insurance number. Applicants must already be registered to vote before applying.

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January to April 2023 figures (daily applications)

Equivalent figures for 2024

Note the far lower daily averages for applications (left)

Spotted something strange ahead of the local elections? If you have a political story or tip-off, email josiah@bylinetimes.com or the VoteWatch contact above.

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