Chris Rennard writes: How can we make sure that people can vote?

Just before the Summer recess, the House of Lords began formal consideration of the hugely significant Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. Among other things this introduces Individual Electoral Registration (IER) for Great Britain. The system has been in operation in Northern Ireland since 2002.

I was closely in involved in working with other Liberal Democrats to change the proposals first put forward in the Government’s white paper which could have had the effect of significantly reducing the levels of voter registration in Great Britain. Mark Williams wrote about them here .

Since then, there has been a great deal of movement in the ways that we wanted. In particular, the Government has abandoned its plan to permit an ‘opt-out’ from electoral registration; this was an idea that would have led the disaffected inexorably to disenfranchisement. They have also conceded that there must be a continuing penalty for failing to register.

Our guiding light as we deal with the legislation in its more final form will be to ensure that the Bill has at its heart the objective of preserving and adding to the completeness of the register, as well as improving its accuracy. Contrary to Labour’s protestations, the existing system of registration is very poor at ensuring everyone who should be on the register is on the register. When the Draft Bill was first published, the most recent Electoral Commission research suggested the present household registration system succeeded in enfranchising around 92% of those who are entitled to vote. Since then it has emerged that the figure is in the order of only 82%. With nearly one in five people in a democratic ‘Bermuda Triangle’, the new system should be ambitious in improving the state of play.

In my second reading speech I emphasised the need for greater uniformity in the way electoral registration forms are laid out. Some local authorities simply do not make the warning about a legal obligation to register, and a fine for not doing so, prominent enough on their forms. But there are good examples to follow. Paul Tyler referred to Hounslow, which apparently has an excellent record. They go to great lengths to get residents on the register, sending out five separate forms and making three personal visits with ever increasing warnings of the fine which is likely if people don’t respond. This year, their entreaty “REGISTER NOW OR RISK PROSECUTION” was brought to life; they pursued prosecutions against ten of their most recalcitrant residents. Denbighshire, too, has shown best practice in emphasising the legal obligation to register. Ministers should ensure that all electoral registration forms follow these models in future.

The Government presently thinks it can register about two thirds of those who are entitled to vote without asking them to fill in an individual form. DWP databases could assist them in carrying people over from the present household-based register to the new individual one. This would be a big help, but we are encouraging Ministers to think bigger still. Leading credit reference agencies tell us that their databases – unlike those of DWP – are over 95% accurate. Their records could assist in possibly removing people who do not really exist and are on the the register by accident and most importantly in adding those who should be. Clearly there would have to be safeguards – ensuring access for returning officers is to name and address information only and not to any credit, personal or financial information – but there is great potential here to enfranchise many of the 6 or 7 million people who have ‘disappeared’ from the lists of people entitled to vote.

Other ideas include registering service personnel in their bases, registering 16 and 17 year olds in advance at school, using the Student Loans Company to invite students to register, and using the Deposit Protection Service to invite tenants on Assured Shorthold Tenancies to do likewise. Those in private rented accommodation are among the most likely not to be registered, so this is a group the Government really must focus on.

There will be time in the Lords to make further improvements to this legislation, and doing so is vital to maintain and reinforce the basic building blocks of our democracy. If you have any further ideas about how we could get more people on the register, please contact me direct on [email protected]. We’ll collate the emails just before Parliament returns, and draw on the best for potential amendments to the Bill and more particularly for the important regulations that will follow the Bill and deal with detailed implementation.

* 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

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  • Mark Argent 10th Aug '12 - 5:12pm

    What research has been done on why people don’t register to vote? I can imagine that this is a really tricky area to explore, but unless we know why people are not registering it is hard to know either how to encourage them, or what safeguards need to be in place to create a situation where people feel safe to register.

  • Chris Rennard 10th Aug '12 - 7:48pm

    The Electoral Commission have published quite a lot of information on this. Many people are under the misapprehension that they are somehow automatically enrolled and don’t need to be pro-active about registering. People who move home are often unregistered (tending to mean that many young people are not on voting regsiters).

  • Mark, Chris, that begs the question, why aren’t people automatically enrolled?

  • The reason I have heard in the past is that people are avoiding the debt collectors by not registering so they can’t find them.

  • Chris Rennard 11th Aug '12 - 9:43am

    @g. I have no problem with automatically enrolling people, but I think that the best we may achieve here are invitations to register, backed by sanctions if you do not, triggered by appearing on other databases etc. At the moment, other databases are not really used effectively.

    @lloyd. Indeed, but many people are also surprised to find that they cannot credit or bank accounts because they are not on the electoral register.

  • Chris Rennard, an invitation accompanied by a threat of sanction is not what I would call an invitation! Doesn’t compulsory registration seem easier , and a great deal less sinister?

  • Peter Hayes 11th Aug '12 - 1:31pm

    There can be a problem with people who rent. I remained registered where I was at weekends not where I rented for work and it was only when my job seemed secure that I moved my registration to Cheltenham. Seems like automatic registration could have given me two votes.

  • paul barker 11th Aug '12 - 2:29pm

    A small factual point for Peter Hayes – you can have 2 votes now, or 4 or 5 as long as you only use one to actually vote. Its quite OK to register in different places at the same time if you have a good reason. All students should, for example.

    On topic, I dont get why we think registering to vote should be compulsory at all ? The vast majority who dont register dont want to vote so why do we want the state to harass them ? Where are our liberal values ?
    Yes, all adults have a duty to think about politics but we dont try to enforce that, quite rightly. A decision not to vote is just as valid as one to vote & much more valid than a vote given automatically or semi-randomly.

    On a factual point again, I used to do a lot of part-time electoral registration in london (kensington, islington, hackney) & we were always told not to mention the fines & to play them down if they were raised. I find it very odd that we as liberals are campaigning for harsher state repression in this area.

  • Chris Rennard 11th Aug '12 - 8:56pm

    @paulbarker Electoral registers are also the basis for jury service and many credit reference checks. I don’t support compulsory voting, but without continuing compulsory registration (fines have been there since 1918) many people will lose their opportunity to vote. What you say that you were told to do is part of the problem – inconsistent Returning Officers applying rules differently for a register used for national elections meaning that many people don’t get the chance to vote. You have to pay taxes inc council tax where appropriate, give an address to HMRC, etc etc. Registering to receive poll cards notifying you of an election etc. is an important obligation in a democratic society.

  • You can get a mortgage, even if you have never been on the electoral roll, by claiming ‘religious reasons’ for not being registered.
    If we introduce voting at 16 then it would simply be a matter of transfer of data from the schools to the electoral register, as we already do with employment registration which ensures that everyone is tagged with an NI number. Why does it have to be such an onerous problem?
    The single voter registered at a property started under the Poll Tax when people started to drop off the radar, and that still continues. The incentive of single occupancy discount for Council Tax should be eliminated.

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