Individual electoral registration: consultation response

Here’s the response I’ve sent to the Electoral Registration Transformation Programme ([email protected].uk) in response to the consultation on the draft legislation for individual electoral registration, which closes on 14 October. For the background on the benefits of individual electoral registration, see What’s the point of switching to individual electoral registration?

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the draft legislation which has been published to implement individual electoral registration in Great Britain. The publication of a full draft for public consultation is a very welcome improvement on the way in which some other electoral changes have been handled in recent years.

On the principle of individual electoral registration, I am very supportive of the government’s intention to introduce it. During the years I was attending the Electoral Commission’s Political Parties Panel on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, representatives of all the main parties frequently expressed their support for the principle, so seeing it introduced is a welcome response to those long-standing calls from across the political spectrum and from the independent regulator, the Electoral Commission.

In that respect I agree with Michael Wills, the then Labour Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, who said in  Parliament on 13 July 2009, “I hope that all Members will agree that this historic shift will enrich our democracy”.

Electoral register formI agree though with the government’s proposal to scrap the intermediary “voluntary individual registration” phrase proposed by Michael Wills as it would have provided an intermediary phase with few of the benefits but many of the costs of a full individual registration scheme.

There are, however, two points of important detail on which I disagree with the government’s proposals.

First, it is proposed to remove the legal requirement to register to vote. I oppose this as a proposal being made at the wrong time, in the wrong way and without full consideration of its impact as key factors are missing from the official Impact Assessment and Cost Benefit Analysis:

  1. It is a significant shift in the principle of electoral registration which, regardless of its inherent merits, has not been preceded by the extensive debate, cross-party agreement and Electoral Commission support which the principle of introducing individual registration has.
  2. The proposal is not necessary to make individual electoral registration work, and to introduce such a major change of principle at the same time as introducing individual electoral registration risks undermining the primary aim unnecessarily by reducing registration rates at the very time when the switch to individual registration makes maintaining them more challenging.
  3. By making electoral registration voluntary, the change would also in effect be making jury service voluntary, given the reliance on the electoral register for jury service. I note the phrase “jury service” does not appear once in Cm 8108: Individual Electoral Registration nor in the accompanying Impact Assessment. If the government is intending to create a new separate system to avoid making jury service voluntary, it is a major flaw in the consultation for it not to be mentioned (and it is hard to see how it can be intending to create such a system without introducing costs which are not mentioned in the official Cost Benefit Analysis). Alternatively, if the impact on jury service has simply not been considered, that in itself would be a major reason to drop the proposal as it means the government’s decision-making process has omitted a significant issue.
  4. The Impact Assessment refers to the advantages in fighting crime of an accurate and complete electoral register, yet it does not consider the consequence impediment to fighting crime from voluntary registration reducing the completeness of the electoral register.

In other words, making electoral registration voluntary is not a necessary part of individual registration, has been raised as an idea relatively late in the day and would have important impacts on jury service and crime fighting which are omitted from the official Impact Assessment and Cost Benefit Analysis, as well as not being mentioned in Cm 8108.

The obvious conclusion from that is that this is a rushed proposal that has not been properly considered. The sensible response therefore is to drop it.

The second point on which I disagree is the suggestion that a full annual canvass, with comprehensive door knocking, might not be carried out in 2014, and instead be replaced with a predominantly posted-out system based on records that, as the Impact Assessment itself acknowledges, will contain many errors.

Given both the importance of accurate electoral registers in the run-up to a general election and also the need to communicate with people the changes being introduced, maintaining a full annual canvass in 2014 would bring two major benefits. Moreover, given the risk of a post-general election drop in registration levels in 2015 which then affects the electoral register to be used for the next Parliamentary boundary review, there is a strong case to continue with a full canvass in 2015 and only subsequently review the options for reduced canvassing.

Yours etc.

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16 Comments

  • as usual, all the bases covered. Would expect nothing less from you Mark.

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Oct '11 - 1:56pm

    Horrified. I had no idea it was proposed to drop compulsory registration. As you rightly say, this is a completely separate issue, with quite different arguments (and with quite predictable political effects, benefitting guess-who), and should not be bundled up with individual registration.

  • paul barker 5th Oct '11 - 2:11pm

    In the long run, theres a good Liberal case for making Registration volountary but you are right that such a change needs to go through an open consultation first.
    I strongly agree with continuing the full canvass. I have worked on several canvasses in various Inner London Boroughs & found them a great opportunity to talk to people about the absolute basics of why & how Democracy works.

  • Tony Greaves 5th Oct '11 - 5:41pm

    There is no Liberal case for making registration voluntary. There is a reacrtionary rightwing libertarian case but that is not Liberal. It is a stupid and potentially disastrous proposal which can only have come from a wish to keep off non-Tory voters.

    Tony Greaves

  • Stephen Walkley 6th Oct '11 - 7:43am

    What is the penalty for not registering to vote? Has anyone ever been prosecuted?

    Shouldn’t there be a discount on council tax for those who do register, thus penalising those who don’t.

  • Tony Greaves is right, this is a disastrous proposal. Of course individual liberty is important but so is a healthy and engaged democracy. Liberals should be very cautious about supporting a proposal that is likely to mainly benefit the already powerful Conservative Party.

  • I join the Pack/Greaves ticket here. Tony is absolutely right to draw a distinction between extreme libetarianism and Liberalism – a distinction which needs more airing than it tends to get .
    Voluntary registration leads to a swathe of people who fail to see the importance of involvement in democracy being excluded from all decision-making – to say nothing of jury service. Is that right? Some countries with liberal traditions make voting compulsory and I for one have some sympathy with that (you can always spoil your vote) but certainly voluntary self-exclusion from the register is a complete no-no to me.

  • Tony Dawson 6th Oct '11 - 7:07pm

    But the Demos is not compelled at all. Every elector has a right to determine whether they will vote or not right up till 10 pm on polling day. But only if they are registered. What do they lose thereby?

    I think that every single person should have a legal duty to ensure that the names of every person residing in the place that they reside is passed on to the authorities. What is lost thereby?

    Perhaps we should not be forced to register for taxes either?

  • From an American perspective, where voter registration is voluntary, I can tell you that the result is a strong incentive for parties with particular ethnic, regional, or class bases to game the system by working to suppress registration in particular regions or among particular groups, and boost it in others. The end result is that fewer people participate in democracy, the tone of campaigns becomes sharply negative (because that helps drive down the vote), and the parties with the deepest pockets benefit. Don’t think it can’t happen in the U.K.

  • Peter Chivall 7th Oct '11 - 8:09am

    Tacking the voluntary registration and the cancellation of the 2014 canvass by electoral registration officers onto a change to individual registration seems typical of a proposal that comes from the office of Francis Maude. What concerns me is that it should not have been blocked at this early stage by Nick’s office.

  • Peter Clark 7th Oct '11 - 9:21am

    I agree with the principles of the article, but have 2 points 1) As has already been raised registering to vote is not currently compulsory it is only a crime to fail to return a voter registration form. This is very difficult to prosecute anyway. 2) A key point in the white paper is a 2014 canvass which is integral to the canvass so why do you suggest there might not be one.

  • I was appalled by the attack on the jury system. It has been a right of every person accused of a crime to be tried by a jury of his/her peers for a major part of our history. It must not be sidelined or abolished. Graeme Cowie should remember that it was the extreme reluctance of juries to find people guilty of murder that eventually led to the abolition of the death penalty. Hardly pandering to public opinion!

    To suggest that juries do not do their job properly is an insult to those who give up their time for no financial reward to do their duty as citizens. I declare an interest as I am about to do jury service for the first time in my life.

    As such electoral registration must remain compulsory.

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