Individual electoral registration: welcome changes to the details

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…Electoral register formThe 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.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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13 Comments

  • Can you tell me, without bothering to look myself, what happens to institutional registration such as halls of residence where currently the university or college registers people in the halls and properties it is responsible for?

    And I disagree with you on some of these points – I would like a permanent opt out and I would like to opt out of juridical conscription, and frankly I don’t see why they can’t be done at the same time (especially the former though I can that while the latter is tied to the electoral roll it would be an unintended, though welcome, for me, consequence).

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th May '12 - 11:41am

    While I have no problem with individual voter registration and can see the advantages that it has, I do have a massive problem with the very significant level of under registration that currently exists – both because I think it is healthy for all those entitled to vote to be allowed to do so and because consituency sizes are based on registered voters rather than those who the elcted MP is meant to represent, and there are well know reasons why some areas will suffer as a result.

    I really don’t think it is approproriate to go ahead with this measure until the canvasses have actually delivered an increased level of registration compared with that under the current syatem. The Electoral Commission were concerned that the changes would lead to a very substantial reduction in the overall level of voter registration – I remain to be convinced that this has been addressed. For all those who don’t understand the importance of voter registration to democratic politics might I suggest a little look at what happened and still happens in much of southern USA.

    I find it very telling that neither Mark or the Government don’t appear to be measuring these proposals against the yardstick of the overall level of voter registration.

  • tony dawson 17th May '12 - 3:50pm

    This is a muddle-headed move which can only help the Tories. (so perhaps it is not that muddled in its origination?)

    Everyone should be jointly and severally liable in law to register every single person in their household. If you gave a tax credit for everyone who registers you would end registration problems.

    I would suggest that since everyone apparently has to have a NI number these days, this number also ought to be registered (but not published) every year to keep tabs on where people genuinely are. And no one should be allowed to register in more than three places at one time.

  • Oh dear. That’s definitely a retrograde step for students as far as I can see. But since they participate just about the least, nobody will miss them eh, maybe? They will cease, more than likely, to be registered at home after the start of the academic year, then they will likely as not not bother to register individually at university (or it will make our lives difficult encouraging them off and on in a similar way to us being responsible for getting them to fill in census forms thankfully only every decade). Yep, a terrible idea, just in time to ensure that as many as possible don’t vote on tuition fees or form embarrassing queues outside potential deputy prime-ministers’ polling stations :) We should push for an amendment/exception to such mass hostel sites (I’ll have 1700 to “encourage”).

  • Since we already have to have Home Office authorisation to process visa stuff, maybe exceptions could be based on whether an institution has such HO recognition. I appreciate there were some problems with a college in the East End or North London somewhere registering students without their knowledge for postal votes. But we have to jump through hoops to get visa registration so why not this. I will perhaps confer with Julian, but a good friend is Nicola Blackwood’s PA and since both are on HASC I might ask them to consider it via her.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th May '12 - 9:54pm

    Mark

    I don’t thing the problem in Northern Ireland was the one that we already face getting those who are eligible onto the register – quite the opposite there were a lot of dead and others who shouldn’t have been on the register. I only mentioned the Southern States as they are the best known example of where right wing politicians have continuously used procedural measures and changes to keep people from registering to vote – I am sure there are others we can learn from.

    The number one problem with electoral registration in this country is that there are probaly c4m people who should be on the register who are not – and it is not being addressed as a priority by this Government. Since time has been allocated to legislation in this area commonsense would suggest that the bill could easily be expanded to bring in some serious measures to address the problem, if it were a real political priority – this is the sort of thing that the LibDems electorate would be expect the LibDems to be pushing for.

    The idea suggested above of using NI and other government databases to populate the register should certainly be looked at seriously.

  • If organised properly, then universities could hand an electoral registration form to new students as part of the stack of paperwork every one gets at the beginning of the year and then return them to the ERO when they get them back from the students.

  • Tony Greaves 19th May '12 - 3:29pm

    The greatest real and present danger to our electoral system is electoral fraud. Individual registration is not only right in principle, it’s a vital part of the efforts to reduce fraud. It is, I suspect, just the first step.

    I am concerned about moving the canvass to the spring – I can see a lot of admin problems in having it so close to the annual May elections, both for registration authorities and for candidates and parties. But no doubt we can discuss this when this important Bill gets to the Lords.

    As for Jock’s view that people should be able to opt out of both the electoral process and jury service – why not let them just opt out of citizenship (and all the rights that come with it?) Perhaps some central Asian republic might be willing to take them in.

    Tony Greaves

  • Paul Valentine 20th May '12 - 12:04pm

    For years, residents have asked me why Electoral Registration is not an automatic administrative step when a person notifies the authority for Council Tax purposes (who is in the household, etc.)

    I’ve not had a successful explanation – we promote reducing administration, yet here is a clear example of another opportunity to ensure registration rates are as high as possible at the time when residents are required to notify councils of a change in address.

    Whilst it’s not the single issue here, it could prevent fraud if a tenant was registering for council tax, for example.

    If we’re reforming, let’s do more than one thing to improve a patently flawed system.

  • Keith McGrellis 20th May '12 - 4:12pm

    In Northern Ireland you have to give your National Insurance number if you have one when registering to vote but there’s a box to tick if you haven’t got one. I’m not sure how it’s used by the Electoral Office.
    One of the following photographic IDs is required to vote:
    UK, Irish or EEA driving licence (photographic part)
    UK, Irish or EU passport
    Electoral Identity Card
    Translink Senior SmartPass
    Translink 60+ SmartPass
    Translink War Disabled SmartPass
    Translink Blind Person’s SmartPass
    (Translink is the government owned public transport company)
    The electoral identity card is free and I’m amazed that ID isn’t required to vote in GB! How do the staff at the polling station know the voter is who they say they are?

    Students in NI can register to vote at either their home address or term address but most use their home address.

    At last year’s NI Assembly and Council elections I tested the theory that you don’t need your Polling Card when going to the Polling Station – it was more bother than what it was worth. I had the card in my pocket and was nearly at the stage where I was going to take it out and tell the staff why I said I didn’t have it!

  • Mary Speirs 21st May '12 - 6:20pm

    I’ve heard that the Bill if enacted will prevent edited electoral registers from being held.
    That will have a negative impact on charities’ fundraising efforts, and will stop the current practice of adoption agencies searching for relatives on behalf of adopted people and birth relatives. Some of these searches are necessary for medical reasons.
    Has any thought been given as to how to avoid this worrying effect of the Bill?

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