UK government advances voter ID project

The UK government is pressing ahead with plans to introduce a digital voter card for citizens without a photo ID to counter criticisms that an identification requirement could prevent sections of the population from taking part in the democratic process.

Part of the Electoral Integrity Programme (EIP), the project follows the introduction of the Elections Bill 2021-22 in June 2021. If turned into law, the proposals will require voters in England and Wales to show voter ID in future elections and support the government’s view that asking people to do so will help prevent potential voter fraud. Currently, voters in Great Britain do not have to present any type of ID before receiving a ballot paper.

Because voter identification would require ID such as a passport or driving licence, critics say the new requirements will present an unnecessary barrier to election participation by young, black, disabled or trans people, as well as those without a fixed address.

Aimed at addressing those concerns, the project, led by the Cabinet Office, is working towards the introduction of a digital or physical card that any citizen could apply for, even without existing forms of photo identification – a model that is in place in Northern Ireland. However, the government has not yet provided details on how the voter ID cards would work or how electoral administrators at local authorities would process applications and authorise and print voter cards.

So far, the Cabinet Office has started a discovery project, which has already been completed, with high-level service designs and blueprints created, as well as user research with target user groups to improve service design needs. Research at this stage was supported by Thoughtworks, a supplier that has now rolled off the programme.

A procurement notice has been published for a contract that will support the evolution of the project into the alpha and beta phase until August 2023. Under the alpha phase, which has a budget range between £250,000 and £400,000, a detailed technical architecture will be created, as well as threat modelling to counter security and fraud risks, plus iterative user research and prototypes, and the definition of support systems and processes such as a helpdesk.

Under the beta phase, objectives of the project will include load, spike and functional testing, as well as the setup of cyber monitoring and logging, support of pen testing and remediation of any vulnerability before launch. The budget range for the beta project, as well as six months’ public beta support, has been set between £1.2m and £1.9m. The closing date for supplier applications is 25 October 2021.

The Electoral Commission has been recommending the introduction of photo ID for elections since 2014 to counter the possibility of electoral fraud, and has wanted pilots to be rolled out nationwide before the government commits to a voter ID scheme. Pilots have been carried out since 2019 and have been challenged by the population on the grounds that they were illegal.

Among the findings of the trials, the Electoral Commission has learned that “using poll cards as the approved type of ID would be less secure than photo ID and would require more costly equipment”.

In a House of Commons briefing on the voter ID project, published in September 2021, critics noted that “personation”, the crime of pretending to be someone else when voting, is rare in the UK and introducing voter ID was a “disproportionate response”.