The individual electoral registration process is a shambles

But it raises deeper questions about our democratic health which must be explored.

Josh Neicho
27 October 2015

Flickr/Keith Bacongco

, CC BY 2.0

This afternoon, hot on the heels of yesterday's vote on tax credits, comes another Lords motion against a government statutory instrument. In this case, it is not people’s livelihoods at stake, but the long-term health of British democracy. And although as of this morning the motion's backers are reasonably confident of victory, the main political parties are so viscerally divided on the issue that the prospect for enlightened progress seems remote.

Individual electoral registration was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2002 to tackle voter intimidation and fraud, and a year later the Electoral Commission recommended the system to be adopted across the whole of the UK, bringing Britain in line with other Western democracies (Zimbabwe is one of the few countries to operate a head of household system). After much delay, during which time were recorded instances of fraud that “would disgrace a banana republic” in Birmingham and repeated concerns about vote-rigging in Tower Hamlets, IER passed into law under Labour in 2009.

The Coalition was divided over implementation, with Conservatives favouring a largely voluntary register while Lib-Dems insisted on a compulsory one which councils would have a duty to chase up. An agreement was reached, including a transitional period when electors from whom councils had not heard to confirm their details would be “retained” on the roll; originally to last until the 2015 general election, this was extended on amendment to December 2016, pending progress with the new roll. In June, the Commission announced that there were 1.9 million “retained” names from the household survey which did not appear on the individual electoral roll and recommended a December 2016 deadline. The Minister for the Constitution John Penrose ignored this and brought forward the date to complete transition to December 2015. Exceptionally, the Commission expressed "disappointment" at the Government’s exercise of this option, warning that some electors would be left unable to vote in 2016 elections.

Official estimates show 415,013 electors in London, 231,345 in Scotland and 68,042 in Wales could potentially be dropped off the register in December. The impact will be most pronounced in large urban areas with a high incidence of multiple occupancy housing, regular home movers and low propensity voters. 23% of electors in Hackney and 7.7% of those in Glasgow were "retained" at the time of the general election compared to an average of 2.9% of voters in the East of England and 3.5% in the South East.

Electors can continue to sign up after the December deadline. More critical is the fact that the new register, cleared of "retained" names, will be used as the basis for next April's boundary review, when the number of Commons seats will be reduced from 650 to 600. This, warns campaign group Hope Not Hate, would leave a distorted electoral map with urban areas and low propensity voters underrepresented. Campaigners against the accelerated timetable widely believe that the Conservatives are not only conscious of this but have calculated how many seats the change may be worth.

"Ministers should be ashamed of themselves" says Lib-Dem life peer Lord Tyler, who tabled today’s "prayer" motion after his aide spotted the statutory instrument being put through in the summer. "To deliberatively flout the advice of the Electoral Commission set up by this parliament, I think is unforgivable. It's going to do great damage to the credibility and reputation of ministers".

"It's going to disenfranchise several million young people, plus mobile people, plus poor people" says former cabinet minister Peter Hain. "Done in the name of combatting fraud, it's a deliberate way of cutting numbers on the register. It's coldly ruthless".

Nick Lowles of Hope Not Hate explains how the distortion will be most acute in university seats and in London.

“In the past universities would mass register students but now they have to do it themselves with their NI numbers, which few of them have. Some universities have been pushing voter registration very hard, others less so. Sheffield Central has 36,000 students and Cardiff Central over 20,000. With far fewer students on the register (we estimate only 30-40% come 1 December), how can we expect politicians to take [students’] views seriously?”

Meanwhile in some London boroughs, “30-40% of people live in private rented accommodation and for many English is not their first language” says Lowles. “Even if people were on the register last year, a large proportion would have moved in the past 12 months and need to be registered again. It is like a revolving door”. It would be eye-opening if London ends up a loser in the boundary review given its rapid and recent population increase.

Dr Toby James, Senior Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics at the University of East Anglia, takes issue with one of the arguments for faster IER since electoral fraud is "not a nationwide problem". Research he conducted with Alistair Clark found that 1 percent of poll workers had suspicions about possible fraud "but many of these were likely to have been inadvertent cases where voters had misunderstood the voting process". By contrast, two-thirds of polling stations in their sample turned away at least one voter because their name was not on the electoral register. “It is vitally important that electoral boundaries are drawn to include all citizens”, he says.

While the government seemingly has no good justification for overruling the Electoral Commission, there are arguments for proceeding with IER as fast as possible – a slightly different point. The cabinet office points out that “missing” voters on the electoral register may just as well be erroneous entries: both a fraud risk and just as problematic as missing names for an accurate new boundary review. Even figures on the Labour side admit that the Labour party, which launched a “Missing Million” registration drive at the weekend, is guilty of exaggerating the numbers who may be disenfranchised. This comes in the context of an electoral map which because of population change is weighted towards Labour. In the absence of any quantification of how close local authorities are to verifying the names "retained" at the time of the last election, it seems plausible to argue that at this stage the most efficient and fair course is to press ahead with the government's timetable together with a concerted registration effort over the next five weeks. By this logic, a delay voted by the Lords today is counterproductive, lumbering us with a flawed boundary review.

Leader of the opposition Conservative group, Cllr Paul Canal, says that in Redbridge over 11% of the electorate and 18% in some wards have not responded to the council’s attempt to contact them to verify their details for IER. “It is arguably a scandal that these "ghost voters" are being included as part of the "base figure" in an electorate forecast” by the local authority, he says. “The failure to introduce IER in England and Wales [after 2002] was in itself purely partisan in my opinion. I agree that more effective voter registration is required.  For example, the proportion of young people on the register is too low. However, the remedy for that is not to include those who do not exist”.

London Assembly member and former Hackney councillor Andrew Boff says, "The reduction in some rolls should not be seen as disenfrachisement, rather, as an indication that the previous system was at fault. Arguments for a delay are arguments against the fundamental principles of democratic involvement." And John Strafford of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy says that "It's no good whinging now. The truth is that the political parties have neglected this area and the chickens are coming home to roost".

Would there be better ways to engage people in our democracy than the current scope of IER? The Coalition made it much easier to register to vote with the introduction of online registration; coalition Lib Dems pushed for further steps to guarantee everyone signs up including registering 14 and 15 year olds at school, and offering a chance to register during every interaction with the state (a measure backed by Labour’s John Spellar). Sadiq Khan calls for automatic enrolment triggered by interaction with government, with an opt out, as has been introduced in New South Wales and Oregon.

Then there are awkward questions arising from the current impasse. Is the Electoral Commission doing the best job to promote registration and democratic engagement, when organisations such as Bite the Ballot are helping to reach groups underrepresented on the electoral roll on a fraction of the budget? The irony of the Lords blocking a move related to the function of democracy is clear – can the UK’s political structures, for the purposes of electing MPs, be properly addressed without considering Lords reform? Since all previous advances towards a more democratic system have been made in the context of Commons majorities, is our best course to accept the framework of our parliamentary democracy with its strengths and limitations, or reach out for a written constitution?

It would at least be good to see politicians across the spectrum embrace the issue of voter registration, not simply that of signing up new supporters. It would be nice to see them embrace the issue with all the fervour of former cabinet office minister Chloe Smith, or of Paul Blomfield who has looked at the impact of IER on the student population in Sheffield, or of Lord Tyler. Otherwise, the suspicion takes hold that we have on the whole a rotten political class, whose democratic spirit only registers a pulse during election campaigns.

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