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Supreme Court to hear challenge over voter ID pilot schemes this week

The Supreme Court will this week (15 February) hear an appeal over the lawfulness of the voter identification pilot schemes that were implemented in the May 2019 local government elections.

The background to the case of R (on the application of Coughlan) v Minister for the Cabinet Office was that in August 2018 the Cabinet Office invited local authorities to take part in voter ID pilot schemes.

Under these schemes, voters would not be allowed to vote in polling booths unless they had a form of ID on them, such as a driver’s licence.

On 3 November 2018 the Cabinet Office announced that a number of local authorities had chosen to take part.

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The Minister for the Cabinet Office then made orders under section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 to allow for voter ID pilot schemes in these areas.

Neil Coughlan, a former member of Braintree District Council, challenged these orders by way of judicial review.

His claim was dismissed by the High Court and the Court of Appeal. He now appeals to the Supreme court, seeking a declaration that these orders are unlawful for being ultra vires section 10 of the 2000 Act.

The case will be heard by Lord Reed, Lord Sales, Lord Hamblen, Lord Stephens and Dame Siobhan Keegan LCJ (NI) on 15 February.

LGBT Foundation, Stonewall, Operation Black Vote, the Runnymede Trust, and Voice4Change England are intervening in the case.

Mr Coughlan is being represented by Tessa Gregory and Carolin Ott of Leigh Day; Tony Peto QC, Natasha Simonsen of Blackstone Chambers, and Sarah Sackman of Matrix Chambers.

Leigh Day said: “The case raises issues of fundamental constitutional importance, including because following the pilot schemes the Government introduced the Elections Bill which includes the requirement for voter ID. Labour's Commons bid to remove that section of the Bill was rejected and the Bill is currently being reviewed in the House of Lords.

“Mr Coughlan says Parliament should be informed by the judgment of the Supreme Court whether the pilot schemes were unlawful, as the pilots form part of the basis for the changes on voter ID proposed in the Bill.”

The law firm said the appellant, who has raised more than £108,000 via crowdfunding to bring his case, would argue:

  • The right to vote in local government elections is a constitutional right and the Court of Appeal was wrong not to rule that it can only be restricted by clear words in a statute. There are no crystal clear words in Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 which indicate that government ministers can give local government officials the power to turn away voters if they do not have ID.
  • Section 10 of the 2000 Act does not permit pilot schemes requiring voters to produce ID before they can be allowed to vote.
  • The pilot schemes requiring voter ID are not in line with the purpose of the 2000 Act to encourage voting and make it easier.

Neil Coughlan said: “Despite all of the moves to make it a legal requirement to present ID at the polling station, I am still convinced that the change will prevent and deter people from voting and as a result lead to fewer people taking part in the democratic process. I am hopeful that the Supreme Court judges will agree with my legal team’s arguments.”

In response to suggestions that there is little evidence that electoral fraud takes place in the UK, the Government has argued that voter identification would virtually eliminate the risk of voter fraud and personation occurring in the first place.

It has also said that the perception that the electoral system is vulnerable to fraud is damaging for public confidence.

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