The sham of voter registration in the UK

The government is now purging the electoral register ahead of its boundary review, with profound implications for our democracy.

Nick Lowles
17 September 2015

If it wasn’t bad enough having 8 million people missing from the electoral register, they will soon be joined by as many as 1.85 million more individuals who look set to drop off from 1 December, as a result of the Government's decision to bring forward changes to how we register to vote. 

That near-10 million people equates to 19% of all eligible adults not being on the electoral register.

How is this happening? Why isn't there a public outcry?

The reason is probably because the bulk of those not registered or about to drop off are already on the margins of society. They are the young, the poor, those who move regularly from one private rented accommodation to another, and the newcomers for whom English isn't a first language. 

In fact, these non-voters are the very people who need a voice most. 

The forthcoming drop-off is due to the Government's decision to bring forward the full introduction of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) by 12 months to 1 December 2015.

Designed to reduce fraud and make the electoral register more accurate, councils have been comparing the names on their existing voter lists with HMRC and DWP records: anyone who could not be matched was asked to re-register, but this time they also had to provide their National Insurance number. 

New voters were also required to register individually, thus ending the system whereby one person in the household could register everyone else.

The changes first came in last summer. As a consequence there were one million fewer people on the register than the previous year. The bulk of these were students who would have previously been mass registered by their universities.

Another five million people that councils weren't able to match with official records were allowed to stay on the register in order to vote in the General Election. In the meantime councils have done their best to get them to re-register.

Many did, but it is the near-two million who have not yet re-registered who will now drop off in December. 

Research by HOPE not hate found huge discrepancies in the drop-off rate around the country. Eight of the ten worst affected local authorities were in London, with 23% set to drop off in Hackney and 18% in Brent. While inner London, where a much higher proportion of people live in private rented accommodation, is worst affected the more affluent suburbs have a much lower drop-off rate. 

Glasgow is set to lose 13.3% of its electorate, while Birmingham will lose 56,000 people, a 7.7% share.

Councils initially had until December 2016 to register these voters but in mid-July the Government announced its intention to bring forward the change over by 12 months. It is hard not to connect this move with the Boundary Review that is due to begin in April, which will be based on the 1 December electoral register. 

With most of those dropping off being from poorer and non-white communities in urban areas, as opposed to the more settled communities in the suburbs and more affluent towns, it is difficult not to see this as a political act.

The situation is set to be compounded by as many as 500,000 new students failing to register on arriving at college. A study of 54 universities by HOPE not hate found just seven were preparing to run voter registration drives at the beginning of term. If last year is anything to go by, very few students will go out of their way to register themselves.

So the 17% of Cambridge voters who are already likely to drop off the register in December are likely to be joined by thousands of newly arrived students who fail to register in the autumn. This will have major repercussions for what is a key marginal seat and radically alter the constituency boundary as outlying rural areas are brought in to make up the 80,000 electorate needed for the new constituency. 

HOPE not hate is lobbying MPs and Peers to annul the Government’s decision as they are both entitled to do in a clause inserted into the original Act. Meanwhile, we will also be launching a huge Voter Registration drive for November to ensure that the maximum number of people are on the register if the MPs and Lords fail.

This year we mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. It has since become to symbolise human rights, democracy and free speech and has been used as an inspiration by the Chartist movement and the suffragettes in their respective quests for the vote. More recently, it was cited by both Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in their respective liberation campaigns. In 2008, the US Supreme Court cited the Magna Carta in its ruling against the US Government over the rights of Guantánamo inmates to a fair trial.

And so it is even more depressing that 800 years on from arguably the most influential document in legal history, we are about to witness the biggest disenfranchisement in our own political history.

We cannot allow this to happen.

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