In a statement to Parliament yesterday, Mark Harper (Minister for Constitutional Reform) announced that the Government will speed up the introduction of individual electoral registration by axing Labour’s plans for an interim phase of voluntary individual registration. Instead, individual electoral registration will be introduced in 2014.
The principle of switching to individual registration has been supported by all the main parties. I previously wrote about the reasons for this support for individual electoral registration:
The current electoral registration system is based on one registration form being delivered to each household, with the head of the household completing the form on behalf of everyone there and sending it back (“household registration”).
One reason therefore for switching to individual registration is a point of principle: someone’s ability (if they aren’t the head of a household) to vote shouldn’t be dependent on whether or not someone else has filled in a form for them.
This switch will also reduce the problems with rented property, where in urban areas particularly it is far from rare for electoral registration forms to be filled in with the name of the landlord (only), resulting in those living in a property not being registered and someone who really lives elsewhere being put on the register at that address.
Individual registration will also allow the recording of “personal identifiers” such as signatures. This will in turn make it possible to tackle the risks of impersonation at polling stations. At the moment, there is relatively little protection against “impersonation” – turning up at a polling station, claiming to be someone else and getting to vote in their name.
As anti-fraud measures for postal and proxy voting have improved (largely due to the collection of personal identifiers from those applying for such votes), there’s a risk that without action fraudsters will switch to using impersonation instead. Requiring voters to supply their identifiers, and checking them against the ones given when they registered, would make such impersonation much harder.
The case for a period of voluntary individual registration was never very convincing. Courtesy of the information required these days for postal votes, councils have already had the chance to learn about storing securely and using properly extra personal information on some voters.
A voluntary period would also have delayed the anti-fraud benefits of individual registration and introduced potential confusion about what was or was not required during that period. That would have required time and effort to be spent on explaining an interim stage which is far better concentrated on making the new system work, as Mark Harper argued:
We will drop the previous Government’s plans for a voluntary phase, which would have cost about £74m over the Parliament. I believe that there is a far more cost effective way to familiarise people with the new requirements for registration and avoid any temporary drop in registration rates.
The Government is sensibly introducing one transitionary arrangement to ensure that any teething issues do not materially affect the next general election:
We propose that individual registration will be made compulsory in 2014, but no-one will be removed from the electoral register who fails to register individually until after the 2015 General Election, giving people at least 12 months to comply with the new requirements of individual registration, and ensuring as complete a register as possible for the election.
From 2014 onwards any new registrations will need to be carried out under the new system– including last minute registrations. We will also make individual registration a requirement for anyone wishing to cast a postal or proxy vote.
This will tackle immediately the main areas of concern around electoral fraud. But it will ensure that people already on the register can vote at the next election and will have more than one opportunity to register individually.
Finally, a trial of data matching to improve the electoral register was announced:
We will be trialling data matching during 2011 – that is comparing the electoral register with other public databases to find the people missing from the register. The aim is to tackle under registration among specific groups in our society and ensure that every opportunity is available to those currently not on the electoral register.
This will enable us to see how effective data matching is and to see which data sets are of most use in improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. If it is effective, we will roll it out more widely across local authorities on a permanent basis.