A Very British Solution to Voter ID

A countermeasure that won't work to tackle a threat that doesn't exist

The British Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, once wrote about identity cards that if he were ever asked to produce one as "evidence that I am who I say I am" then he would take it out of his wallet and "physically eat it". Now, however, he has announced that he intends to introduce mandatory voter ID for elections.


Since Britain doesn't have an ID card, or a functioning digital identity infrastructure, Mr. Johnson will thankfully be spared the indignity of eating an ID card (or, presumably, his phone) at the polling station. What's more, since Britain doesn't have a problem with voters being impersonated at the polling station in the first place*, it doesn't matter.

It's a sort of security theatre that will keep everyone happy. A rigorous ID requirement would be problematic, because a quarter of the British electorate lack either of the principal photo ID documents, a passport or a driving licence. Hence when you go to vote you will produce either some photo ID document (eg, a Portuguese fishing licence or a British passport) that the person at the polling station cannot conceivable verify (in Britain polling stations are manned by cheerful local volunteers, not ex-Israeli airport security counterfeit document detection experts) or some random non-photo ID document from a peculiarly English assortment of possibilities including your local library card (these are notoriously difficult to forge, of course).

In summary, Britain will demand an ID that voters do not have in order to solve a problem that elections do not have.

To me this represents a wonderful, pragmatic British compromise - implementing a countermeasure that doesn't work against a threat that doesn’t exist - that avoids dealing with an actual problem: the electoral fraud that does not happen at the polling booth. 

The main source of electoral fraud in the UK is not personation at the polling station but fraudulently-completed postal ballots, a situation that led one British judge to call it "a system that would disgrace a banana republic". As far as I can understand it from reading the various reports, including the source reports on electoral fraud in the UK, the main problem is that postal votes are being completed by third parties, sometimes in bulk. No proof of identity is going to make any difference to this and so long as we allow people to continue voting by post I can't see how the situation will improve. It is not beyond the wit of man to come up with alternatives to the postal vote, but that's not what is being proposed. The British government is not currently proposing an app or any other kind of electronic voting here, it is merely proposing to add a pointless test of identity at the ballot box.

Woking in the vanguard

My home town of Woking, one of the few places in England where people have been jailed recently for electoral fraud, was part of the government's original voter ID pilot scheme which trialled different types of identification, including formal correspondence such as a utilities bill.

(I should explain here for foreign readers that in the UK we see the British Gas quarterly bill as a uniquely trusted document.)

When that pilot scheme was announced, Chris Skidmore (the responsible minister) was quoted by the BBC as saying that "in many transactions you need a proof of ID" which is not, strictly speaking, true. In almost all transactions that we take part in on a daily basis we are not proving our identity, we are proving that we are authorised to do something whether it is to charge money to a line of credit in a shop, ride a bus or open the door to an office.

In almost all cases, therefore, we are presenting ID as a pointer to some other attribute because we don't have a proper infrastructure in place for allowing us to keep our identities safely under lock and key while we go about our business. This point about moving to transactions based on authorisation instead of identification is really important. It is the fundamental mechanism that we have to enable population-scale security and privacy together.

At the same time as the voting ID pilot, Scott Corfe produced an excellent Social Market Foundation report (called A Verifiable Success-The future of identity in the UK) in which he highlighted what he called the "democratic opportunity" for electronic identity verification to facilitate internet voting thereby increasing civic engagement. I agree, but if we are to implement the kind of electronic identity verification envisaged by the Social Market Foundation, then what you should really be presenting at the polling station is an anonymised entitlement to vote that you can authenticate your right to use.

It is nobody at the polling station's business who you are and, in common with many other circumstances, if you are required to present your identity to enable a transaction then we have created another place where identity can be stolen from. Therefore for voting, as for many other applications, the shift from identification to authorisation means a practical solution to pressing problems.

Entitlement and elections

The real solution, then, is not about using gas bills or indeed special-purpose election ID cards only for the purposes of voting, or a national identity scheme that Mr. Johnson dreads, but a general-purpose National Entitlement Scheme (NES). This sort of thing has been put forward for decades by informed industry observers (eg, me) but I think it now has added momentum because of the combination of technological evolution in the field of identification, authentication and (in particular) authorisation as well as the pandemic pressure to manage vaccination certificates and test results.

Much as a person should be able to demonstrate that they have been vaccinated without giving away personal details so should be allowed to vote without disclosing their identity.

This is often explained through the canonical example of proving to a bar that you are over 21 without providing a date of birth or age. As The Economist explained recently, individuals can be identified to (for example) a smartphone app much in the same way as for online banking, authenticated against their smartphone using biometrics and then when seeking entrance to a "COVID-secure" venue the app can respond to the venue's requests for credentials (such as a valid test certificate) with a simple "yes" or "no" and nothing else. The individual's name, age, address, the date of their vaccination and the like would not be transmitted from the app. It seems a pretty small step to present the credential ENTITLED_TO_VOTE using a similar mechanism at the polling station if the government actually wanted to do anything about personation.

The key technology enabler here is that of the "verifiable credential" (VC) and the ability to create and present credentials that demonstrate proofs about data rather than the data itself. If the government proposed to implement a system based on using smart phones and even smarter cryptography, I can imagine that that would have a number of spin-offs and turn into a significant engine for new products and services. But they are not. They are proposing what the Electoral Reform Society calls “an expensive distraction” that will waste tens of millions of pounds at every election and inconvenience large swatches of the public. Personally, I vote for verifiable credentials.

* There was precisely one conviction for "personation" fraud in the UK in 2019.

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