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Court of Appeal dismisses legal challenge over voter ID

A former member of Braintree District Council has lost a Court of Appeal case over the Government’s decision that it and other councils had to pilot voter identification in the 2019 local elections.

Voters were required to bring a form of identification to the polling station rather than simply stating their name and address as normal. The Cabinet Office said the measure was to combat fraud.

Former councillor Neil Coughlan challenged the Cabinet Office over the decision, which he argued impeded the ability of some electors to vote.

Giving the main judgment in Coughlan, R (on the application of) v The Minister for the Cabinet Office & Anor [2020] EWCA Civ 723, Lord Justice McCombe said: “He believes that requirements for identification of voters at elections tend to disenfranchise the poor and vulnerable and render it less likely that their electoral voices will be heard.

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“He considered that the scheme proposed for Braintree and similar schemes were unlawful as being outside the powers conferred by the 2000 Act upon the Secretary of State.”

McCombe LJ said the issue was whether or not Supperstone J’s construction of the Act in the Administrative Court - when he rejected Mr Coughlan’s case - was correct.

Mr Coughlan had argued that the scheme orders were outside the power conferred by s.10 of the 2000 Act because the schemes were not within the statutory definition in s.10(2) and were contrary to the statutory purpose of s.10 which is to facilitate and encourage voting at elections.

The judge rejected Mr Coughlan’s argument that there were inconsistencies between what the Cabinet Office had decided and its powers under s.10.

Underhill LJ said he agreed but said he found the issues “quite finely balanced” and wished to give his own explanation.

He said: “I regard it as inherently more probable that Parliament intended to enable the piloting of changes to the voting process in the broader sense than that it intended to limit the scope of the piloting power to the actual mechanics of voting.

“There is no reason in principle why changes to the actual mechanics should be the only kind of change in the voting process which Government might in due course wish to consider; and it would be unsatisfactory if it had to return to Parliament to obtain authority to pilot such other changes if the occasion arose.”

Green LJ added: “I agree with both judgments and can detect no material difference between them.”

Mark Smulian

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