Delay UK voter ID checks or face election result challenges, officials warn

Exclusive: Lack of time to implement photo ID rules ‘may prevent voting’ in English local elections in May

Electoral officials and councillors are urging ministers to delay the rollout of mandatory voter ID checks at May’s local elections, warning that a short timetable and lack of clarity about the rules could cause thousands of people to be disfranchised.

One senior election official, who is responsible for voting in a major local authority, told the Guardian they feared a large number of election results could end up being challenged in the courts if the system was implemented as planned.

“So many people could be affected, or stopped from voting, that it could definitely sway some results,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I imagine there could be formal challenges to results. We just have to hope it’s not us.”

The rule that all voters for English or UK-wide general elections must show photographic identification was among a series of changes introduced in the controversial Elections Act, which came into effect in April.

While opposition parties argue voter ID is unnecessary and likely to particularly suppress turnout among disadvantaged groups, there is a specific worry about its rollout for local elections across England in May.

The 344-page legal guidelines setting out how the system will operate were only put before parliament last week and are unlikely to come into effect until January, giving election officials minimal time to adapt.

One major complication is the duty of councils to issue people with an electoral identity document if they do not have any of the agreed forms of photo ID, such as a driving licence or passport.

People can apply online, by post or in person at a council office, but this process is not expected to begin until at least the new year. There are concerns many people will be unaware of the new rules and may only apply at the last minute.

Tudor Evans, the lead of the opposition Labour group on Plymouth city council, said its electoral officials had calculated that if every resident who did not have the necessary ID – up to 4% of the total – applied for the document, it would take one full-time staff member 36 weeks to process them.

The council had been told the special watermarked paper needed for the documents would not arrive before January, he added.

“It takes a minimum of eight minutes to process someone, assuming all the voter’s details are presented,” Evans said. “But even if it started today, and it all went perfectly, there are already people who will miss out on their vote. And we won’t be starting today, because paper doesn’t arrive until January. You can see already that there’s going to be a massive problem on polling day.

“Across the country, this could affect tens of thousands of people, even hundreds of thousands. Losing candidates can appeal to election courts, and can you imagine how many marginal seats could be affected?”

Another big concern is finding enough temporary staff for polling stations, with the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA), which represents election officials, saying many will be put off by the stress of having to check IDs and turn people away.

Polling stations will need a screened area so women who cover their face for religious reasons can have their identity checked in private. This must be done by another woman, requiring female election staff to be available throughout the day.

The AEA has said it is already “concerned about the tightness of timescales” and that if there was any further delay to the full guidance on how the system would work then it would formally call for a delay to its implementation.

The senior election official said there could be a significant shortage of election staff, particularly presiding officers, who will be responsible at each polling station for deciding whether a voter’s identification is acceptable or not.

“They will have to make the call just based on the training we have given them, and the responsibility is on them,” the official said. “They get paid about £220 for a 16-hour day, a fee that hasn’t gone up for a decade. It’s not really a surprise some are thinking they won’t bother.”

Even the Electoral Commission, the official watchdog that will oversee the rollout of voter ID, has said the timetable could affect some people’s ability to vote in May. In a briefing to MPs this month, it said there was a risk of “confusion” and of valid voters being turned away, which could damage wider confidence in elections.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which oversees elections, said the paper for electoral identity documents would be ready before January, although it could not say when.

A government spokesperson said: “Money for any new equipment will be provided by central government and we are working closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure electors have the right information and training to implement these changes for the May 2023 elections.”

Contributor

Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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