UK must ensure elections remain accessible after new ID law, watchdog says

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) - The British government must take urgent action to ensure elections remain accessible and changes to the system such as a requirement for voter ID pose a significant threat, the independent elections watchdog said on Wednesday.

Some 14,000 people were denied a vote in local authority elections held in May across parts of England after the government brought in a new law requiring voters produce photo ID, saying it was essential to combat election fraud.

In a report on how the May elections were run, the Electoral Commission said that while most people were able to vote, some groups such as the disabled or the unemployed, found it difficult.

It said the challenges posed to voters and administrators would be far greater at a national election which is expected next year, and called on the government to make changes, such as expanding the list of accepted ID.

"The new voter ID requirement has posed a barrier to some voters and is likely to have a larger impact at higher turnout polls," said Craig Westwood, the commission's director of communications.

"We have made recommendations to expand accessibility and support for voters, which should be introduced ahead of the next UK general election to ensure large numbers of people are not prevented from taking part."

Critics said of the ID overhaul said it was not needed given low levels of fraud, and was designed to suppress turnout among poorer people, ethnic minorities and younger people who were less inclined to vote for the ruling Conservative Party.

One former minister said the government had tried to "gerrymander" the May vote but actually found it backfired by hitting elderly voters who traditionally voted for the Conservatives.

The government said research showed 95% of people who voted in May found the process easy and that the overwhelming majority were confident in how the elections were run.

"The government has always been confident in the ability of local authorities to implement the voter identification changes whilst continuing to deliver our elections robustly and securely," elections minister Jane Scott said.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Angus MacSwan)