Over the weekend, I wrote about how welcome the ancillary details are in the newly published Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. Those are the “and Administration” part of the Bill, but the main act is electoral registration, with the Bill laying out details of the move to individual electoral registration across Great Britain, catching up with Northern Ireland.
I’ve written before about why individual electoral registration is a good policy, and hence has been long pushed for by the Electoral Commission and supported by all the main political parties. In brief, it is to do with principle (your right to vote shouldn’t depend on whether or not someone else fills in a form on your behalf), with fraud (individual registration will be a bit like putting window locks on, cutting crime by making it harder) and with the problem of landlords registering themselves rather than their tenants. You can read more about that in What’s the point of switching to individual electoral registration? but on to the Bill…The plans have been through an extensive pre-legislative scrutiny process, including some of the best cross-party forensic examination of details by a Commons committee I’ve seen and expert analysis of the proposals by peers such as Chris Rennard, the party’s former Chief Executive. Quite rightly therefore the published Bill includes some significant changes of detail which reflect all that.
First, the idea of letting people opt-out completely from the electoral register has been dropped. The original plan was to let people return a form saying, “don’t register me and don’t ask me again”. Letting people leave the electoral register also lets them duck out of jury service and, even if you think both should be voluntary, wrapping up such a major change of principle (and, in the case of jury service, a change that hasn’t been debated) at the same time as a major change of administrative systems is asking for trouble.
Second, there will now continue to be a legal requirement to return electoral registration forms. Currently the heads of households are required to complete them properly and return them or face a fine. In future when forms go to individuals instead, those individual recipients will have to do the same or face a fine. The Daily Mail has liked to attack this as a dreadful new imposition, curiously omitting to mention that the idea of having to return an accurate form is an existing legal obligation…!
As with the idea of voluntary registration, there is also the pragmatic point that even if you think such civil penalties are wrong in principle, abolishing them at the same time as changing electoral registration systems would be hugely risky. (See my response to the official individual electoral registration consultation for more on this.)
Third, the intended Autumn 2013 door to door electoral registration canvass is being moved to Spring 2014. The logic of this is tied to the administrative details but it means that canvass will be a much more effective measure to help ensure the completeness of the first electoral register under individual electoral registration. (One concern though is the amount of power given to the Secretary of State to change future annual canvass plans; that is something that should be addressed via amendments.)
Three sensible changes that will make individual electoral registration work better.