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.
Bite 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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.