In 2003, the Electoral Commission recommended that Great Britain should follow the example of Northern Ireland and move to a system of Individual Electoral Registration (IER), where everyone fills in their own form. Labour havered for six years, fearing that ‘their’ voters might not register individually. It took until 2009 for them to introduce framework legislation to bring in individual registration at some future point, with no guarantees as to exactly when.
When the Coalition took office, the two parties agreed to speed up Labour’s glacial process. Ministers settled on a transitional period encompassing the next General Election. The new system would be fully in place for 2015 but with voters registered only on the old household system retaining their right to vote for that election. This was dubbed ‘carryover’.
However, other aspects of the original Government proposals were deeply troubling. The Conservative Party sought to end the existing system of compulsory registration (it is an offence not to return a form when asked to) in favour of a purely voluntary arrangement. The Electoral Commission estimated this could diminish the electoral roll to only 60% of its present size.
Paul Tyler, Mark Williams MP, and I fought hard from the Lib Dem side of the Coalition to alter these proposals. We argued that some form of legal obligation was the cornerstone of a comprehensive electoral roll. Without it, less engaged (usually poorer, more transient) groups would likely find themselves not only disenfranchised but also at a disadvantage in getting mainstream credit. This would at best have an impact on social mobility, and at worst direct vulnerable people into the hands of payday loan merchants. Meanwhile, the change would have made jury service voluntary too: a transition from ‘trial by your peers’ to ‘trial disproportionately by your more affluent, politically engaged peers’.
On the strength of these arguments, we won our case, and the Bill published for parliamentary consideration in 2012 retained a legal obligation. But there was more work to do.
New data from the Electoral Commission showed that – even without the transfer to individual registration – some six million eligible voters are missing from the register. Under pressure from Liberal Democrats, the Cabinet Office identified ways in which ‘data-mining’ could be used to identify unregistered electors on government databases. We have been encouraging the use of Students Loan Company records, those of ‘deposit protection schemes’ (now compulsorily used by private landlords for their tenants), and of credit referencing agencies. The extent to which this will be done is now contingent on regulations to be passed later this year, but we are heading in the right direction.
Additionally, the Government now estimates that it will transfer two thirds of those on the existing household register on to the individual register automatically by looking at DWP databases. These will identify voters whose electoral registration address is still accurate, and keep them on roll.
With all these extra safeguards, the transition to IER has a much greater chance of working well. Yet still no one can be sure that the move to IER will be a success in time for ‘carryover’ to end in December 2015. To that end, Paul Tyler and I have argued that we cannot pass the Bill, in full knowledge that the transition may not be successful, without incorporating some mechanism to deal with that problem if it arises.
In the last few days we negotiated an additional amendment, to provide for the ‘carryover’ to continue until December 2016, unless Parliament votes for it to end on the original schedule at the end of December 2015. That way, if the transition has been a success, Parliament can end the transition early. If not, there is another year to make progress.
This is a pragmatic approach, and reflects the shift we have achieved in the Government’s attitude. From an instinctive position fermented in Conservative Campaign Headquarters – “who cares if people fall off the electoral register; they don’t vote for us anyway” – to robust legislation with a Lib Dem stamp.
Now that we have got the legislative framework for IER broadly right, the transitional phase is a challenge which should go well beyond the office door of Town Hall electoral administrators. It is a task for every Lib Dem MP and councillor to make sure that those for whom they do casework are on the electoral roll. By providing that help, Lib Dems will genuinely be doing their bit to make this big but necessary change to electoral registration a success. And there may even be some votes in it!
* Chris Rennard is a former Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats. He has led for the Party in the House of Lords on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill