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The Elections Act, Voter ID & the Right to Free Elections

The Elections Act passed into law in April 2022. It made big changes to the way elections work – including introducing a requirement for people across the UK to show photo ID before they’re allowed to vote. In this explainer, we talk about what the Act does, what it means for human rights in the UK and steps you can take to access your right to vote.

My Vote My Voice have also created Easy Read guides to voter ID and registering to vote, which you can find on their website.

What is the Elections Act?

The Elections Act is a law that was introduced by the UK Government in 2022. The UK Government said it wanted to “ensure that UK elections remain secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent.” However, lots of individuals and organisations raised concerns about the Act before it was passed – particularly the plans to introduce voter ID, which could risk “making it much harder for already marginalised groups of electorate to have their say”; and give “the government power to set the priorities of the Electoral Commission, the elections watchdog, creating fears for its independence.”

What did it change?

The impact of the Elections Act is slightly different in different areas of the UK. This is because voter ID was already required in Northern Ireland and the new requirements do not apply to devolved elections in Scotland and Wales (including local elections and elections to the Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru).

However, everyone in the UK will now have to show ID at polling stations in order to be able to vote in UK Parliamentary elections (like the upcoming general election on 4 July 2024); local elections in England; recall of MP petitions in England, Scotland and Wales; Police & Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales; neighbourhood planning referendums in England; and local authority referendums in England.

You can find a full list of accepted photo ID on the Electoral Commission website. Some of the options include your passport, driving license, some (but not all) travel passes and biometric immigration documents. It doesn’t matter if these are expired. If you don’t have any of these documents, you can apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate, which we explain at the end of this page.

There are also new application forms for postal and proxy (where someone submits your vote on your behalf) voting. The new forms must contain either your National Insurance number or a reason why you haven’t provided it.

The Act also introduced a new rule saying that polling station officers should provide reasonable equipment to support people with disabilities to vote independently and secretly.

What human rights considerations have been raised about the Act?

When the Elections Act was still in Bill stage (meaning it hadn’t become law yet), the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) scrutinised it to see how it could impact on human rights – particularly the right to free elections. The JCHR said that while this right is not absolute, and States have a wide margin of appreciation in this area, any measure that interferes with it must “pursue a legitimate aim and must not be disproportionate.” It acknowledged that securing the integrity of elections is a legitimate aim and said that requiring voter ID “is capable of being proportionate provided, for example, that the types of documentation required are not too difficult to obtain”. However, the JCHR asked the UK Government to explain why it considered the voter ID requirement to be proportionate given “the low number of reported cases of fraud at polling stations…the potential for the requirement to discriminate against certain groups [and] the lack of any clear measures to combat potential discrimination faced by those groups, including disabled people and older people.”

The UK Government responded to the JCHR, saying that the voter ID requirement would “increase public confidence in the voting process” and “to ensure everyone who wants to vote is able to do so, the free local Voter Card will be available. Implementation plans, including the process for applying for a Voter Card, will take account of the specific needs of any protected group and will be supported by a communications campaign.”

After the Act passed into law, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and the Constitution (the APPG) wrote a report on how it’s working. The APPG looked at the impact of the voter ID requirement on the local elections in May 2023. One of its concerns was that “awareness and take-up of the Voter Authority Certificate was low” although of those who did apply for the certificate, 84% said that the application process was easy.

What have courts and authorities said about the Elections Act and human rights?

In September 2023, the Electoral Commission recommended that the UK Government “identify any additional documents that could be included to improve accessibility for voters. This should focus on forms of ID that would support people who are least likely to have documents on the current list, including disabled people and those who are unemployed.” However, the UK Government said it “has been unable to identify any additions that would succeed in significantly increasing coverage, in the groups identified and more generally.” It also said, “the Voter Authority Certificate was created deliberately to support electors who may not have access to another form of accepted identification, either temporarily or over the longer term.”

In February 2024, Alice wrote to the UK Government about their decision not to expand the list of acceptable voter ID. Alice is a trans woman who has no photo ID because “she has either been unable to afford the cost…or her mental health issues have presented a barrier to dealing with the administrative and bureaucratic hurdles necessary to do so.”

Alice said that by not expanding the list of acceptable ID, the UK Government was risking her human right to free elections and to be free from discrimination. She also said it was breaching the duty under the Equality Act to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and advance equality.

Alice asked the courts for permission to bring a legal case on the issue, but this was refused. While the High Court didn’t address the Human Rights Act in its decision, it said that the equality claim was “unarguable” because the Government had done its duty by reviewing ID requirements (even though it ultimately decided not to change them) and because Alice is “able to obtain a [free] Voter Authority Certificate but apparently had failed to do so”. She therefore couldn’t argue that she was “personally or directly affected” by the decision not to expand the list of acceptable ID.

How can I get free Voter ID to support my right to free elections ?

The availability of the Voter Authority Certificate was a key part of Alice’s case and has been highlighted by many commentators as important in mitigating the impact of the Elections Act on the right to free elections.

If you don’t have accepted photo ID, don’t look like your ID photo or have a different name on your ID to the electoral register, you can apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate online. These can be used to vote in elections in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, you can apply for an Electoral Identity Card.  

To apply for your certificate, you’ll need to submit a recent digital photo of yourself and your National Insurance number. If you don’t have a National Insurance number, you’ll be asked to submit 3 or 4 other documents proving your identity instead, such as a birth certificate, utility bill or Universal Credit letter.

In order to get your certificate in time to vote in the General Election on 4th July 2024, you’ll have to apply by 5pm on Wednesday 26th June 2024.

If you are registered to vote anonymously (so your name and address do not show up on the electoral register), you can apply for an Anonymous Elector’s Document instead by contacting your local council.

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