Canada's voter ID approach: A blueprint for change?

With voter ID becoming law in the UK and local elections fast approaching on 4 May, there has been a lot of debate and controversy around the issue.

A photo of a British passport © Nick Richards
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The UK could learn a lot from Canada’s approach to voter ID. Canada has a “vouching” system, which allows a voter who has ID and appears on the electoral roll to sign a letter confirming the identity of another voter.

This provides a clear paper trail linked to registered voters so they can investigate any suspicions of fraud. This also ensures that many voters without ID, or those who feel uncomfortable providing it, can still cast their vote. Family, friends, and neighbours can help one another to take part.

Prof Toby James, a director of the Electoral Integrity Project, said that “Canada has long held this system. It was removed as part of the Fair Elections Act in 2014, but reinstated in the Canada Elections Act 2018. Roughly 1% of the population use this as a way to ensure they can still vote. Implemented in the UK, this could help roughly half a million people.”

The key is to ensure all eligible voters have access to elections, regardless of their background or circumstances.

Earlier this year the BBC reported that only “only 1% of those without valid documents have signed up to a scheme to allow them to vote”. The Voter Authority Certificate (VAC) is a service run by the government to make sure everyone can vote, whether or not they own photo ID.

You’ll need to complete your application by 5pm on 25 April 2023 to get a VAC for the 4 May elections.

Critics are concerned voter ID will affect young and marginalised people, who are least likely to vote for the Conservatives and may struggle to access eligible forms of ID in time for the local elections.

Natalie Bennett, former Green party leader and University of Leicester alumni, told Byline Times in November last year that the new Elections Act which introduced the requirement was “voter suppression straight out of the American right’s playbook.”

Leicester West Labour MP Liz Kendall also argues that the current voter ID scheme will disenfranchise thousands of people in Leicester who may vote: Black and Asian voters, younger and low-income voters, and those with disabilities will most likely be affected.

In contrast, supporters argue voter ID will help to prevent voter fraud and ensure the integrity of the electoral process. The prime minister said in a wide-ranging interview with Conservative Home that “this is something that has been in the tray for a while now so it's been well-looked at. I think we don’t need to rehash all the arguments why this is a sensible thing to do. Most people agree our elections should have some form of identification so that we can make sure they are high-integrity processes."

The government has earmarked £180m over the next decade for the scheme, but the UK has low levels of proven electoral fraud. The Electoral Commission found no evidence of large-scale electoral fraud in 2022. In 93% of cases, the police took no further action or resolved them through words of advice.

Data shows there were no cases of electoral fraud in the last Leicester city council elections.

The Local Government Association (LGA) – which represents local authorities – said the practical difficulties faced by councils enforcing ID checks “should not be underestimated.”

LGA spokesperson Kevin Bentley said local authorities “remain concerned about the potential for electoral staff to be overwhelmed with enquiries and VAC applications, now polling cards have been issued.”

The government has drafted extra staff in to handle new voter ID rules on polling day.

Anyone wanting to vote must have registered before Monday 17 April to take part in this year’s mayoral and city council elections.

Those choosing to use a postal vote must apply to do so before Tuesday 18 April.

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