Is UK electoral registration ‘improving’? If not, why not?

The UK Electoral Commission has just published a new report detailing the results of the performance standards for electoral registration officers.

This is an annual report.  The standards have been in place since 2008.  The standards arose in 2006 after there were concerns that not all local authorities were not doing everything that they could to promote electoral registration and run elections effectively.

The report details an improvement according to the standards.  Less and less electoral registration officers are now not meeting the benchmark standards. However, the report expresses concern that 58 electoral registration officers don’t meet standard 3 – house to house enquiries to complete the register.

A conference paper that I’ve written explains why some electoral registration officers consider it important to meet the standards, and others do not.  The paper will be presented at a workshop on electoral integrity in Madrid next month.  This is based on over 70 interviews with local election officials during 2011.  The research was funded by the McDougall Trust and Nuffield Foundation.

Electoral registration officers see it as important to meet the standard for a number of reasons, but key amongst these are the effects that not meeting the standard can have on their personal and organisational reputations.  Making the results of non-performance more widely known can act as a significant trigger for change.  Very often, the results of the standards go by unnoticed by the media and the public.

Many do not meet the standard.  The key reasons are that officials think that the standards won’t improve elections, that there were insufficient incentives to change practices, they had insufficient resources to do so, that meeting the standard was not possible or that there were strategic incentives in not meeting the standard at a given point in time.

Nonetheless, the presence of the standards has a number of effects on confidence in the electoral processes amongst elite actors, if not, the public.  They are an important way of improving election administration.

The Electoral Commission has warned that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, currently being considered by Parliament, may water down the requirements on local elections staff to meet the standards.  It states that officials must only do what is ‘reasonably practical’ rather than ‘all necessary steps’.  The Electoral Commission therefore proposes revising the Bill.  This research supports this claim.

There might be more scope, however, to include academic research and local elections staff in the devising of indicators for the future.  The Electoral Commission is likely to need to have a new set of performance indicators for electoral registration officers once individual electoral registration is introduced.

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