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ID card will be needed to vote, says UK election watchdog

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Unexpected support for ID cards has come from Electoral Commission chairman Sam Younger, who has told the Times that photo ID should be required at polling stations, and that if (or, in the view of the current Government, when) ID cards become compulsory they would "undoubtedly" be applied in elections. "I think there’s a very strong case for making sure we go down the road of tightening up the identification of polling station voting as well [as postal ballots]" he said.

Younger's statements are somewhat eccentric, even bizarre, given that ID cards could most readily be used to prove identity in the part of the ballot system where it's least necessary - i.e. at the polling station, where there is no evidence of widespread fraud.

Historically, proof of identity hasn't been required for voting in person in the UK, and while many voters will tend to turn up clutching the registration form that's been sent to them, simply stating name and address and having that checked against the register is sufficient proof to vote. This system clearly isn't fraud-proof, but there's enough in the way of checking and scrutiny to discourage systematic fraud. The scrutiny processes have however been heavily dependent on the existence of the traditional ballot's paper audit trail, so in Younger's defence we might consider that he's anticipating the insecurities that are likely to be introduced as, like it or not, we move over to electronic systems. But that would mean accepting the replacement of a relatively secure system by an insecure one, then bolting on ID cards as the sticking plaster, right? So not ideal from a design point of view.

The massive expansion in postal voting over the past few years has however undermined controls. Previously postal ballots were heavily restricted and therefore fairly easy to supervise, but the drive to increase turnout by making it easier to vote postally has resulted in it becoming a lot easier to fiddle elections via postal ballots. One spectacular instance of this at the previous local elections led a judge to describe it as a fraud that would "disgrace a banana republic."

The verification systems being used for the current elections are intended to ensure that the ballot has actually been completed by the registered individual, and hence - so long as they work - it should be more difficult for large numbers of misappropriated blank forms to be completed by fraudsters. But, erm, if you count a signature as a biometric (and why not?), then that gives us a biometric-verified postal ballot system already, right? And there's no obvious way that an ID card could be inserted into the process, unless it involves verification in person as part of the initial application for a postal ballot. Which would rather undermine the point of postal voting. Note also that verifying signatures on the form doesn't do anything to tackle intimidation and coerced bloc voting, and still leaves us with a system which encourages party workers inhabiting the grey area between 'helping' voters with their forms and hijacking them to step over the (actually very fuzzy) line.

Younger cites Northern Ireland as an example of the successful introduction of stricter ID rules in balloting. There, voting fraud was viewed as a problem and was tackled via the Electoral Fraud Act 2002, which required personal identification from voters, and that individuals (rather than heads of household) complete their own application forms. Photo driving licences were also introduced first in Northern Ireland as a sort of localised ID card. Younger's enthusiasm for the Northern Ireland solution is not however likely to be shared by politicians. In his view the system has worked well and has been largely accepted by the public, however the introduction of stricter regulations in Northern Ireland to combat fraud also led to a substantial drop in the number of registered voters, precisely the opposite of what the Government wants from postal and electronic voting. ®

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