Why Voter-ID in UK elections is mostly a terrible idea

If you dig into the UK election in-person voting system, you’ll find it’s designed around a brilliantly balanced ideal, making voting as easy as possible whilst ensuring that fraud can not be committed at a scale that will normally make any kind of difference.

I’m a hacker by trade, I may work for the good guys, but my job is to look at systems and processes and work out how they could be abused (ideally before the bad guys do) and a few years ago I was a polling clerk at a very quiet polling station, with no internet access and only the Electoral Commission Polling Staff Handbook as reading material, so I spent most of the day studying the guide and working out ways I could subvert the in-person voting system.

One thing is obvious reading the guide, everything possible is done to keep the barrier to voting as low a possible, especially for that that impromptu last minute decision to vote. No polling card, no problem, kids or dog with you, no problem, need physical assistance no problem. It’s all about ways to facilitate voting, not prevent it.

So what about fraud? You may be surprised to know I came up with many ways I could commit voter fraud, but none fitted an important part of my original statement “committed at a scale that will normally make any kind of difference“. Sure I could see numerous ways I could fraudulently cast a single vote, but none that scaled. You’d either need multiple visit to the polling station times (increasing the chances of being noticed or the person you were impersonating having already voted) or have a conspiracy of many people and given each one could only cast a small handful of votes, you’d need a big conspiracy (and even small conspiracies are a big risk as humans are generally not great at keeping secrets).

So, how does mandatory voter-ID change things? Firstly is raises the barrier to entry, unlike polling cards, if you didn’t receive it (in time or at all), no vote. Lost it, no vote. Left it at home, no vote. Unplanned chance to vote as you were near, no vote. But more importantly, abusive spouse or parent who feels that if afforded a secret ballot you may not vote the way you want, they simply hide your voter-ID and boom, no vote.

What do we get on the other side of the scale in return, technically some improved security, but as it’s almost impossible to pull off in-person voter fraud at scale, the number of actual votes changed would be zero and the number of results changed would almost certainly zero. In 2017 44.6m votes were cast, there were 28 allegations (not proof) of fraud, that’s 0.000063%.

It’s spending money and ensuring people who could and would have legitimately voted, don’t, for no real benefit.

I’ll spare you the political analysis on who this would impact the most and why, as I hope even supporters of the parties who may gain from disenfranchising voters will think it’s an abhorrent idea, and just say …..

If you care about electoral integrity, focus on the postal voting system. It’s far easier to abuse (especially at scale) and doesn’t offer many of the same protections (i.e. from coerced or intimidated voting or ensuring the secrecy of the vote). Anyone who thinks fixing in-person voter should take priority over mail-in voting either doesn’t understand the UK election voting system, or has something to gain from a higher barrier to entry when it comes to in-person voting.