Add voter suppression to the disadvantages of the poor and marginal

The debate over the boundary review has overshadowed an imminent threat to British democracy. Proposed changes to the electoral register are likely to see voter numbers fall significantly. Who are these people? The young, the poor and the disadvantaged.

Working class communities and women campaigned vigorously to win the right to vote over the past two centuries. But now that the drama of their struggles is past, the whole issue of free and fair elections, and electoral machinery, has become something of a bore.  It is at the heart of probably the most alive and crucial crisis for British democracy today.  Yet it at best scarcely merits media attention and raises not much more than a whimper elsewhere.

The government is introducing individual electoral registration (IER) for elections, one of the biggest changes since the introduction of universal suffrage – and one with potentially damaging consequences for our democracy. The government’s Electoral Registration and Administration Bill entered its report stage last week in the House of Lords.  We are all familiar with the rightwing drive in the United States to suppress people’s voting rights by taking likely opponents off the register, by going to court to stop early voting, by placing lawyers at polling stations in poor areas to intimidate queuing voters and slow down the queues, by questioning the voting rights of Latinos, by removing black men guilty of very minor felonies from registers.  

A very British version of this ‘voter suppression’ is about to happen here, not by such unscrupulous American tactics, but through neglect, benign or possibly malign, on the part of the government and political parties.  For the sake of democracy, as Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh has protested, ‘voter suppression’ should not be allowed to succeed here. The media’s attention however has been taken up with the battle in the House of Commons over whether the Conservative plan for boundary changes will be introduced before the next general election. Cameron's party lost the vote today. This debate and vote was rehearsed in the Lords a fortnight ago when peers voted to delay the changes until after the election, thus denying the Tories the opportunity possibly to win an overall majority in 2015.

Vital as this battle is, it has overshadowed a more profound Commons debate that took place in Westminster Hall last month on IER and its effect on the electoral register.  Free and fair elections are one of the most fundamental responsibilities of the state in this country and government must ensure that an epochal change to the registrar doesn’t harm them. The electoral register is, as the Electoral Commission says, the bedrock of our democracyOur democracy depends on the fullest possible register, not just election by election, but also to ensure that constituency boundaries are fair and equal and will secure long-term equity between constituencies, between rural and urban areas, and between political parties.

Yet the register is grievously flawed.  As of December 2010, the Electoral Commission estimated that the register was only 85-87 per cent complete, which means that some six million people were disenfranchised - deprived of their most basic political right.  And who are these dispossessed people? Disadvantaged people; young people, rarely the old; people on low incomes, not rich; tenants of private landlords, not home owners; ethnic minorities; and people with disabilities.

The introduction of IER will make the register even more incomplete and thus even more unequal.  There is no political disagreement over the principle of moving from the current household-based system to individual registration (which puts the onus on everyone to register personally).  In fact, Labour took the lead towards IER in government while neglecting to repair the existing incomplete register, even though the political loss was theirs and was likely to increase over time.  To my knowledge, only Harriet Harman took the issue seriously.

The loss to democracy consequent on IER will be two-fold.  First, the register will collapse.  When IER was introduced in Northern Ireland, the register fell by 11 per cent and might now be down by nearly 30 per cent. The Electoral Commission found that the losses adversely affected disadvantaged groups—young people, the poor and people who are in and out of unsecured shorthold tenancies. It is therefore up to the government to guard against similar losses after individual registration is put in place.  One measure is to make it compulsory to register to vote as the government has now accepted.

The key however to sustaining and raising registration is the annual canvass carried out by registration officers across the country. The government is going to rely on data-matching and data-mining with existing public databases. On-line registration is on its way in the future. But knocking on people’s doors remains the most effective way to get voters registered.  As Labour MP Nick Smith said, introducing the Westminster Hall debate, “face-to-face contact is as important as ever in our digital age.”  Electoral officers already complain that they are not given sufficient resources to do their job. The government has offered £108 million to help local authorities cope with the change to IER, but that money, which is hardly a big deal, is not ring-fenced and may well be seized at a time when local authorities face significant cuts.  This expenditure should be prioritised, otherwise our democracy will whittled away by a thousand cuts. The growing problem was highlighted last June by an Electoral Commission on managing electoral registration.  Among its performance indicators was the following:

Performance standard 3: House-to-house enquiries.

‘House-to-house enquiries’ involves sending canvassers round, from house to house, to find non-responders. In 2008, 16% of electoral registration officers did not perform that role; in 2009, that went down to 5%; in 2010, there were only 2% of officers not carrying out this essential function to get the registration up; and in 2011, the figure increased by 800%, to go back up to 16%.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

A future of unequal democracy between country and town, rich and poor

The long-term consequences of incomplete and unequal registers are already undermining democracy in this country and will do growing damage over successive boundary reviews. Boundaries in the UK are not determined by population size, as they are for example in the United States, but by the number of registered voters in any constituency area. Thus the proposed new boundaries, whenever they come into effect, will create inequalities and harm democracy, because of the mismatch between population and registration that is the result of incomplete registers. My heading above simplifies and dramatises the effect over time, but this is the direction in which our elections are going, distorting our democratic politics and polarising inequalities between the haves and have-nots, between insecure and secure people, between rural and urban areas, between private tenants and home owners, between disadvantaged ethnic minorities and the rest, between people with or without disabilities – and between political parties. In Westminster Hall, Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central, illustrated this point by comparing his constituency with Nick Clegg’s, Sheffield, Hallam, next door:

"My constituency is in the heart of Sheffield—inner-city, multicultural, with large council estates and two universities—and 17 per cent of households have nobody on the register. The Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency, which is like a piece of the home counties parachuted into South Yorkshire, is mono-cultural, with large areas of comfortable owner-occupation and a stable population, and only 4 per cent of households have nobody on the register. There is therefore a huge disparity between the number of people we actually represent and the number of registered voters. On the surface, simply considering electoral registration, the constituencies would look much the same size, but if we compare the 2011 census figures with the number of voters registered on 2 January, the picture is very different. Sheffield Central has 76,596 registered voters, and Sheffield, Hallam has 71,559, so my constituency is 5,037 voters larger. However, according to the census, Sheffield Central has a population of 115,284, whereas Sheffield, Hallam has a population of 89,356, so I represent 25,928 more people. Many of those excluded from the register are precisely the people who form a huge proportion of my casework—a picture that I am sure is reflected for many other Members with similar constituencies."

Blomfield argued that the UK should fix constituency boundaries on adult population, not numbers of registered voters. If Cameron emerges as Prime Minister, at the head of a Conservative or coalition government, then that opportunity genuinely to reform our elections will be lost, at least for a generation.  For Labour, reform after 2015 should be an urgent priority, for the country’s sake as well as for its own.  Civil society organisations concerned about the quality of our democracy should follow Unlock Democracy (where I am a vice-chair) and campaign on the issue. So should the Lib Dems, if they really mean what they say on democracy. Whether or not we choose reform as Blomfield said, “there is a need massively to improve voter registration, because if we do not, we risk creating a US-style democracy, with huge under-registration that excludes the disadvantaged and disengaged and focuses elections on the needs of the more privileged, so poisoning our politics.”

About the author

Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88. He is a consultant to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the State of the Nation polls.