Millions are missing from the UK’s electoral registers

The foundations of UK democracy are threatened by a crisis in voter registration. 

Toby James
12 February 2016

Wikipedia/Rama, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR

A recent issue of the Guardian led with news that 800,000 people have dropped off the electoral register following changes to the way that citizens register to vote. If that figure is accurate, that’s 800,000 people without a voice in a year with crucial elections in Scotland, Wales and London - as well as a once-in-a-generation EU referendum.

This is just the tip of an iceberg, however. An Electoral Commission report in 2014 estimated that 7.5 million names were missing from the registers. That’s equivalent to 12% of the population and represents 25% of people who voted in the 2015 General Election. Imagine this many people were missing from NHS databases; it’d be a national emergency.

We won't have a clear picture of the state of the registers - and the full impact of the introduction of individual electoral registration (IER) - until there’s a comprehensive evaluation. But the picture is depressing whichever way you look at it - especially for young citizens. Up to a third of young people could be missing, and the number of ‘attainers’ - 16 and 17 year olds who’ll be the next generation of voters - is plummeting.

This shouldn’t be news; concerns about registration levels have long been made. An academic study raised the issue back in 2011 (when the Coalition was also thinking of making registration voluntary) and Bite The Ballot has pressed every constitutional reform minister since 2012 to act to prevent young people from falling off the register. A report on Voter Engagement from the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform also raised concerns about the impact of IER.

The Government’s response to the Guardian story - which used figures gathered by the Labour Party - was that those who are being removed have been sent nine letters from their local council. Their conclusion is that these must be ‘bogus’ voters. Another conclusion might be that, in the 21st century, writing letters to people is probably not a cost efficient or effective way to register people: especially young people and students. While the parties treat the number of “their” voters on the register as a convenient football, we suggest there needs to be a comprehensive re-think, combined with an all-party endorsed plan of action, now.

We know that many people think they’re on the register because they pay council tax and access other government services. So why not automatically register people when they register for council tax, claim benefits or apply for a driver’s licence? Many people turn up on polling day asking to vote, but are turned away because they’re not on the register. So why not consider election day registration, which is used, for example, in Canada? Research also shows that the funding electoral officials receive can be a key factor shaping the quality of electoral administration. In this age of austerity, why not ring-fence local government election budgets and provide extra cash to get democracy’s infrastructure in order?

How has the Government responded to these ideas, put forward repeatedly by academics, Bite The Ballot and other campaigners? So far, it has shut down the Select Committee making proposals to address the situation, and embarked on a new agenda to tackle electoral fraud (when the best available evidence says there is little of it).

There have been some positive steps, however. The Coalition accepted that registration shouldn’t be voluntary, introduced a successful system of online registration and the new Minister, John Penrose MP, has shown some interest in automatic registration. There are also growing calls to combine registration with active citizenship as part an education that prepares students for life.

An All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation was formed in December 2015. It’s led by Bite The Ballot, has representatives from every party and champions the views of academics and young people. It provides a crucial forum to discuss innovative ideas, and a platform for solutions.

There’s nothing to stop a government that felt concerned about drawing parliamentary boundaries based on a register with millions missing, from legislating to reinstate the names being removed, and introduce ‘no-brainer’ solutions to improve IER. This is exactly what the previous government did when IER was introduced in Northern Ireland in the early 2000s, when a successful ‘schools initiative’ was rolled out to enable students to register in a place they’re obliged to be - school.

The National Voter Registration Drive (#NVRD) is a new moment in Britain’s democratic calendar where passionate individuals and organisations rise up to compensate for governments’ failings to produce a complete register. The Drive is coordinated by Bite The Ballot with the aim of inspiring marginalised communities to #TakePower, helping to create a society where everyone is empowered to become a change-maker.

Voter registration isn’t just a bureaucratic form-filling exercise. It can form a crucial first step in young citizens’ political education. What’s needed now is for the Government - and all political parties - to recognise this, think beyond narrow partisan lines, and act to strengthen the foundations of UK democracy for the long-term. Let’s rise again this year.

Toby James is a Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia and Fellow of the APPG on Democratic Participation. Oliver Sidorczuk is the Policy Coordinator at Bite The Ballot and Convenor of the APPG on Democratic Participation.

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