Havering Council flirts with breaking election law

Until yesterday, Havering Council was telling residents that it would reject any rolling registration applications that were not made on the council’s own form – despite the fact that such rejections would be a breach of the law. In a bizarre twist, it also meant that Havering Council was telling people who had filled in an electoral registration form via the Electoral Commission’s heavily advertised website, AboutMyVote.co.uk, that those applications were invalid.

As one resident who used the Electoral  Commission’s site reported, he received a letter from the council saying,

We do not accept internet forms.

and warning that unless a second form was completed

You will not be eligible to vote.

Both these statements – and a similar comment on the council’s website – were made despite the law specifically allowing applications for rolling register updates to be made via means other than the council’s own form. When I contacted the council asking for a comment on the council’s approach, I was told that this was a well-established practice by the council, motivated by a desire to tackle fraud – “We have encountered some fraud in the past”. By posting a form out to people and then getting them to return it, the council believes it has more assurance that the person really is associated with the address.

However, when pressed as to whether or not the council would reject any recent applications which were made in line with the law but where the person did not return a second form, the council said it would make a judgement during the 5 day period it has to consider registration requests.

In other words, despite the explicit comments made to residents, the council might after all accept registrations which were only made the once. The person I spoke to stressed that they did not want to disenfranchise anyone and that they would “consider” what to do if an application had been made with no council form received. The implication was that in the absence of reasons for suspecting fraud, such applications would after all be accepted.

The Council stressed its commitment to using a two-form process and also suggested that if people did not have time to complete the second form, that was in part their fault – “It is ridiculous that people leave it to the last minute”.

I also contacted the Electoral Commission asking for their view on Havering Council’s approach. After consulting with the council, the Commission told me that Havering Council will accept applications made on other forms, such as via the AboutMyVote site, and will change the wording on its website.

The wording has now been changed to read: “Please note that the London Borough of Havering does not accept registration forms downloaded from the internet. However, in the run up to the election period, we will accept downloaded forms subject to further integrity checks.”

Whilst this is progress of a sort, it’s still deeply unsatisfactory that the council has taken upon itself to issue information to residents that contradicts its legal obligations and, even after being asked about the issue, is only making a half-concession to following the law properly for recent applications.

I became aware of the issue via Helen Duffett, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Romford who rightly comments,

“The AboutMyVote campaign has been so valuable for raising awareness and making it easy for voters to register. I’m concerned that Havering Council has made the process more complicated than it should be.

How many people have been put off registering, and so denied the chance to have their say in the most important elections for many years?”

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This entry was posted in Election law.
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