QR codes help Watford Borough Council prove voter identity

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood August 16, 2019
Summary:
With the Voter ID scheme still set to be law by 2022, do local government election managers need to start evaluating the best tech options now?

Image of a QR Code on a phone

For at least a century, voters in any sort of local, national or European election could rock up to their local polling station, give their name and address and get the paper to make their democratic choice known.

But that’s all set to change. In 2022, the UK wants to introduce a nationwide Voter ID Scheme that is intended to boost the level of ID security for this entire process. This approach was trialled in the 2018 local elections in five English boroughs, with mixed results, we might say, but the government pressed on, with ten local authorities taking part in trials for the recent (May) 2019 local elections.

One of the local authorities that took part in the May round of digital voter ID pilots was Watford Borough Council, which this week spoke to diginomica/government to share its perspective on its experience. Our contact there was Gordon Amos, Electoral Services Manager, who is responsible for the compilation of the electoral register and the conduct of all elections and referenda held within the Borough.

Our approach is to make the Government’s Voter ID scheme as frictionless as possible. The scheme will be fully implemented across the country in 2022, and both [our] Returning Officer and Councillors are determined to find a ‘proportional solution’ to the new legislation.

Amos began by reminding us that the proposals around voter ID are all about preventing election fraud, requiring voters to present concrete proof of identity at polling stations before they are issued with a ballot slip. However, unlike other European nations, the UK does not issue citizenship cards and not everyone has a passport or driving licence - so he and his team decided to take a different tack, QR codes.

We wanted to make the process as inclusive as possible for the electorate. Some voters do not have photographic ID, so we felt giving voters the choice of bringing photo ID or their polling cards was a fair and transparent way of providing an additional layer of security and legitimacy. Specifically, the QR codes represented the most efficient approach to voter ID in terms of both simplicity and reliability.

We also wanted the process to be as straightforward as possible for voters; we were keen to avoid bombarding the electorate with needless hurdles. So everyone eligible to vote was sent a polling card informing them of the date of the election and the address of the polling station, which had a QR code included, effectively acting as a non-photographic form of ID.

Amos worked to test out a QR-based voter ID approach with a supplier called Modern Democracy, who he had previously worked with to run a handful of polling stations during the 2017 local elections.

We were looking for a company that found the balance between ensuring security and not making the process over-complicated. Another crucial factor was that we needed to partner with a supplier compliant with the international standard for information security, and as the vendor’s Modern Polling solution works in accordance with ISO 27001, his was another tick in the box.

Having the technology to enable polling staff to access data and make instant decisions is such a convenient tool on busy election days

The results

So - what happened on the day? Did QR work? Amos says yes:

It was a remarkably quick and seamless process. During the 2018 and 2019 local elections our polling staff were equipped with Apple iPads which they used to download the Modern Polling app, which was then used to scan QR codes on voters’ poll cards. This was an efficient method, as staff did not have to waste time manually checking a long electoral register list and marking names.

The system also notified polling staff if voters were not on the register, or if they had accidentally arrived at the wrong polling station. Normally, staff members would have to phone the Electoral Admission Team, which again takes up valuable time and resources. Having the technology to enable polling staff to access data and make instant decisions is such a convenient tool on busy election days. We also like the fact the system is updated in real-time, so we could centrally track everything from voter turnout to whether a polling station had actually been opened, as it all happened.

Amos also told us that at both the 2018 and 2019 Local elections conducted with a QR approach almost 90% of the voters who attended to vote at their allotted polling station brought their poll card to assist with proving their ID to receive their ballot paper(s).

iPad technology was also used to process all electors attending their polling station to register their vote, and he claims that,

No real objections or inconvenience was expressed by the electors. Feedback was generally positive and favourable.

Learnings

Does he see this as a success, then? Amos says there are a number of factors that need to be considered to answer such a question:

A key area we are proud of is that nine out of ten of those who came to vote used their poll card to identify themselves. In addition, it was great to see the new ID requirements did not negatively impact voter turnout – in fact, the 2018 turnout was 39%, a 2% increase from the previous comparable election in 2016.

Another key metric relates to the overall efficiency of the operation; a third of polling station staff in 2018 said the election was easier to manage than previous election formats. So if you consider these three categories – the use of voter ID cards, voter turnout and efficiency of operation – as ways of measuring the success of the scheme, each produced positive results. We have had a positive experience, and if things stay the same, we would certainly use the platform again.

Would he recommend this approach to other councils who need to implement the Voter ID scheme?

I certainly think other authorities should explore QR codes, as local authorities have no option but to explore different avenues of voter ID. From our perspective, the ease of use regarding QR codes worked wonders, and I’m sure other authorities will undoubtedly benefit from this method.

A lot could change depending on potential government announcements, but for the time being the approach used in Watford is certainly one that bodes well for the future.