individual electoral registration
We should have a system of automatic electoral registration in Britain to combat the crisis of millions of people missing off the electoral roll. That was one of our core messages last week when we sent a report on elections in Britain to the government.
Most polling stations turned away would be voters at the 2015 general election, research from Alistair Clark and I showed. On Radio 4’s Today Programme and Radio Norfolk I explained that many citizens think that they are on the register because they pay their council tax, renew their car tax and register for other government services. But unlike many other countries, they still need to do more to register to vote.
Earlier this week John Penrose said that he is considering a form of automatic re-regstration. This is excellent news for democracy.
I flagged the problem of low levels of voter registration and how individual voter registration would worsen this in a report to Parliament in 2011. I have long argued that using methods used in other countries such as registering citizens when they use other government services would improve registration levels and turnout. This was based on my book and an article on electoral administration.
John Penrose’s announcement is therefore very welcome news but there is a more to be done. Automatic re-registration stops names dropping off and might save local authorities time and resources. But what of those not currently ln the register? Upto 10 million could be missing from the register in December. And that is the register on which the boundaries for the 2020 general election will be fought.
Voter registration is a problem in the UK. Approximately one in five citizens are not on the electoral register. When it is reported that only 65% of registered people voted at the 2010 general election, we forget those people who are not on the register in the first place.
The Guardian is today reporting that Labour is looking to respond to this problem with three promises:
Labour is looking at bringing in a US-style system of allowing voters to register on election day….
….Labour will also ensure people are encouraged to sign up to vote every time they come into contact with a government services, including the DVLA, Passport Office, universities, schools, colleges, blood donation, council tax payment and parking permit applications….
….Labour will pull the plug on individual voter registration if it leads to a large decline in democratic participation
I will write more in a fresh blog soon. However, to give away the ending of the story, you might be interested in what I wrote in May 2012 on the Electoral Reform Society and LSE blog (and many later posts since), after my research had shown that individual electoral registration was likely to lead to a decline in registration.
Dangers remain with electoral registration changes: Norwich and Cambridge could be amongst the most affected areas
The government is planning to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) in June 2014. A new report and data released from the Electoral Commission suggests its implementation still poses a risk for British democracy.
My earlier research on the likely effects of IER suggested that this would:
- improve confidence in elections, but
- result in a considerable decline in levels of electoral registration, a concern when electoral registration levels are already low in the UK. This would affect particular groups such as students, the mobile and young disproportionately.
- lead to a considerable increase in the costs of running UK elections.
- lead to issues with data management and a need for staff training
The government is trying to prevent a decline though ‘data-matching’ – use the government’s existing records such as the DWP database to improve re-register people automatically. A new report from the Electoral Commission has said that plans to implement IER are ‘on track’ but there remains risks:
- 52% of electoral officials are concerned that they will not have enough money to implement data-matching effectively
- a system for allowing online registration has not been fully tested yet
- although re-registration rates were higher than last thought, there are uneven regional effects ranging from 46.9% in Kensington and Chelsea to 86.4%. ‘Students, young adults and private renters’ are also less likely to be re-registered.
The breakdown by wards gives us more detail and shows how students are a key group who might be affected. Amongst the highest wards were:
Market (Cambridge) 75.2% (4813 people)
Wivenhoe Cross (Colchester) 55.2% (3757 people)
University (Norwich) 46.5% (3521 people)
Implementation is everything when it comes to government policy and it is no different with elections. There needs to be adequate funding available for electoral officials in local government if British elections are not to be adversely affected. These reforms come at a time when budgets are already being squeezed because of public spending cuts and the number of elections that held is increasing.
Soon, every citizen in Britain will need to register individually and provide key personal identifiers in order to register. When this was introduced in Northern Ireland there was a significant decline in levels of electoral registration. Research has suggested that a further decline will occur when implemented in Britain too. This is especially troubling since one in five of eligible voters are already thought to not be registered. I wrote a blog about the changes on the Democratic Audit website earlier in the week. But things are moving quickly.
One idea that the government has been exploring to prevent any drop is data-mining. This involves registration officers using other government databases, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the Student Loans Company etc., to find the names and addresses of people who are not on the register. They can then be written to and invited to register.
The government and Electoral Commission published reports on the effectiveness of data-matching pilots on Wednesday. This or its consequences was not picked up by any media, as far as I am aware, perhaps because there was no Electoral Commission or Cabinet office press release. Sadly for British democracy, the news is not good.
The first thing to say is that the pilots were not a perfect experiment. The Electoral Commission noted that registration officers were hindered by ‘delays and… [needed] a greater level of support’ from the Cabinet Office (p.2). However, the headlines are that:
- The databases used produced low levels of new electoral registrations. If managed differently, there might have been greater returns, the Electoral Commission suggested and the evaluations might have been able to be more certain about whether these were really new registrations or not.
- It was very expensive. Registration officers therefore could not absorb this practice into their everyday practice without significantly more money. Cabinet Office did not publish their expenditure (p.4)so there might be more costs involved in managing the process centrally. This comes at a time of government spending cuts.
The Electoral Commission has therefore concluded that the pilot does ‘not justify the national roll out’ of data-matching. This means that we may still be set for a ‘car-crash’ drop in levels of electoral registration.
We should not be hasty in casting data-mining aside. After all, it did find somenew voters. And what is the monetary value of a registered voter or a vote? Whatever the state of the public finances, democracy must not be compromised. However, there is clearly a need to explore further ways to boost voter registration.
A British Motor Voter Act?
One way that I have suggested that this can be achieved is for the UK to learn from the US experience. In the US in the 1990s a law was passed that expanded the number of locations and opportunities whereby eligible citizens could apply to register to vote. In particular, citizens were to be given a voter registration application when they applied for or renewed a driver’s license, or when applying for (or receiving) services at certain other public offices. Today, a huge proportion of new registrants use this mechanism to register to vote in the US. Data from the shows that 37.1 per cent of registration forms were submitted via motor vehicle agencies in 2010. Over 18 million citizens used this method in 2008. Subsequent empirical studies showed how this (and other methods) could improve registration rates (). Researchers that the effect on registration could have been greater had federal agencies worked harder to enforce the Act.
This might be a more promising way to improve voter registration. When we register for a drivers licence (or access another government service) could a box be provided for us to tick so that we can have our name added to the electoral register? Electoral registration officers could then check and update their records.
No doubt, that would cost money. But elections and democratic representation are worth it.
I have been writing and blogging about the individual electoral registration a lot over the past few two years or so. The legislation has now been passed and we edge nearer and nearer to it becoming a reality.
The Democratic Audit have published the latest of my blogs today, which considers the implementation stages of the changes that could have significant consequences for British democracy.