Five things that you may (not?) know about voter registration on National Voter Registration Day

Bite the BallotBite The Ballot have made Wednesday 5th February 2014 National Voter Registration Day.

This is a great initiative.  There have been citizen-led projects to increase voter registration in the USA for decades.  The UK is only now catching onto the importance of this topic.

Here are five things you might may not know about voter registration in the UK.

  1. Registration levels are getting lower.  A recent piece of research from the Electoral Commission estimated that only 82% of people were registered in 2011.  This compares with rates of 91-93% in the 1990s.
  2. It is lower amongst some groups.  Research has identified it as being lower amongst the younger, Black and Minority Ethnic communities and those who privately rent.
  3. It is lower than many other countries.  Comparisons with other countries are difficult because of poor data quality.  A high registration rate might also result from duplicates or inaccuracies.  For example, one estimate put the registration in the Czech Republic at over 120%, which suggests other problems with the quality of the register.  But the UK still lags behind many other countries.
  4. Things might get worse.  We will soon be required to register individually and provide a National Insurance number, under changes planned by the government.  My research has suggested that this will reduce registration rates further.  This decline is likely to hit students, the young and geographically mobile the most (see: here for the full piece).
  5. There are things that we can do.  The government has invested resources into a scheme called ‘data-matching’ to register people whose identity can be confirmed using other government records.  This is a really important step in stopping registration rates falling further.  However, more can be done such as thinking about election-day registration and holding days and events to focus the media and public on registration, just like today.

Well done Bite the Ballot.

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Is online registration a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Online voter registration was in the news last week.

In the US state of Washington citizens will be able to register to vote via Facebook.  This will use a piece of software developed specially by Facebook and Microsoft.

Meanwhile, in Britain, it was reported that Harrow has become the first local authority to allow online re-registration for those already on the electoral register.

Many electoral administrators around the world may therefore be looking to online registration to solve problems with the cost of elections and low registration rates.  As the Electoral Reform Society tweeted: ‘[b]earing in mind the UK’s poor registration rates, is this the future?’.

A remedy for declining registration?

The development of online registration is especially important in Britain.  Here, the government’s legislation to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) will have its second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday.  My research on the effects of IER (a copy is also available on my website) found that we should expected IER to reduce electoral registration rates.  We therefore need other ways to increase registration rates in Britain to offset this decline.

The UK government has always been in favour of online registration and it published the eagerly awaited implementation plan for IER last week included.

Online registration is a good thing though, yes?  I’ve said so before. The logic is that by opening up as many methods of registering to vote as possible, registration rates will rise.  Citizens are increasingly online and government services need to adapt accordingly.

However, there might be a catch.  Faced with budget cuts electoral administrators may use online registration as a replacement for other methods.  This seems to be Harrow’s thinking.  They have introduced it partly as a way of saving money.  Fortunately, they appear to be keeping the ‘old fashioned’ paper registration mechanisms too.

This line of thinking informed the government’s decision to not pay for campaign literature for candidates for the UK’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections.  Instead, of paying for one free leaflet per candidate, there would be one website on which citizens could find out about who was standing, and what for.  This was quickly criticised for reinforcing digital divides and reducing electoral participation.

There is also this recent research paper by Elizabeth A. Bennion (Indiana University) and  David W. Nickerson (University of Notre-Dame) which suggests that online registration can make citizens less likely to register.  Citizens need regular reminders, they claim, in order to re-register online.

The devil is therefore in the detail.  Citizen’s experience of online registration therefore needs further research and its implementation in Washington, the UK and everywhere else should be carefully monitored.

The Impact of Individual Registration on British Elections

The Coalition government proposes to fast-track individual electoral registration (IER) for British elections before the 2015 general election.
The proposals are currently being considered by the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform.

My evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform is now available online to download here.

The evidence draws from published studies on the effects that different forms of election administration have on voter registration and voter turnout. It also draws from interviews that I have undertaken as part of my ongoing research project on performance management in UK elections. I have interviewed senior election staff such as Returning Officers and Electoral Services Managers from 18 authorities since January 2011.
Levels of registration in the UK have been in decline for some years. My evidence suggests that IER is very likely to accelerate this decline. Although it is not considered in depth in this briefing, it is anticipated that voluntary registration is also likely to reduce the numbers on the electoral register.
IER would be one of the most significant changes to election administration that Britain has seen since becoming a democracy. It will force electoral administrators to undertake significant and costly administrative changes. At a time when a number of other changes are being made to electoral law in the UK, and local government budgets are being cut, there are concerns about the funding elections.
If IER is to be introduced then it is recommended that:
– Other provisions should be put in place to boost voter registration such as enabling voter registration when citizens access other government services. Lessons can be drawn from overseas innovations.
– The long-term funding of election administration is duly considered, given the context of local government cuts.
– Issues of voter accessibility are fully considered.
– The views of citizens towards the registration process should be carefully monitored towards the registration process once during and after the implementation of IER.