Lord Roger Roberts writes…Voter Registration

bite the ballotLast week, I was encouraged to see more political parties coming around to the (long-held Liberal Democrat) view that we need to make voter registration easier, accessible and engaging, and allow young people to register from an early age. Only then can we seek to inspire future generations to take a stake in democracy and truly make ‘politics’ open to all citizens.

To this end, today is the formal first reading of my Voter Registration Bill in the House of Lords. I very much hope that Members from all parties (and none) welcome and support its aims.

As honorary President of the non-partisan movement, Bite The Ballot – a fantastic organisation seeking to empower young voters – I know just how enthusiastic young people are about political issues when they are taught about the power they hold at the ballot box. It is this simple premise that forms the basis of my Voter Registration Bill, which has two parts. The first concerns the sharing of information between government bodies and electoral registration officers; the second concerns the duties of electoral registration officers.

The Bill will authorise electoral registration officers to ‘fill in the gaps’ on the register using information (e.g. dates of birth and addresses) already held by bodies such as the Passport Office, DVLA and the NHS. Crucially, this will be an opt-in process and information will only be shared with electoral administrators with a person’s consent. A similar initiative was introduced in the U.S.A. in 1993 – yes, twenty years ago! – via the National Voter Registration Act. It expanded voting rights and empowered more people from lower-income backgrounds to join the register.

With the transition from household to individual electoral registration this summer, it is vital that we introduce these changes now in order to prevent the feared mass ‘drop-off’ of certain groups from the Register. Peers debated this in May, and we’ll continue to press the Government in this Session.

In Northern Ireland, the number of registered young people plummeted after the transition to individual electoral registration and reforms that heralded the ‘Schools Initiative’ were brought in to rectify the situation. The ‘Initiative’ was responsible for registering 50% of young people in Northern Ireland between 2008-12: according to the Chief Electoral Officer, it’s been “instrumental” to adding young voters to the roll.

Sadly in the UK, even before the move to individual electoral registration, it’s been estimated that only 55% of the 6.7 million 17-24 year olds are registered. Of that number, only 24% are, today, ‘certain to vote’.

The statistics paint a worrying picture, but the solution is simple. Bite The Ballot’s resources make registration and democracy education simple and engaging; the two sides of the coin when it comes to the youth vote. Almost always, by the end of a Bite The Ballot school session, all students are ready to register; even if they were initially judgmental of politics and politicians.

This, I suggest, is something electoral registration officers should be doing as standard. It’s a beautifully simple system that ensures our young people start their democratic journeys in the best possible way: with the desire to learn more about making informed choices on polling day. That’s why the second part of the Bill requires electoral registration officers to take active steps to increase the number of people registered from under-represented groups, including organising at least one voter engagement session per year, per school or college in her area of responsibility.

This Bill is the first step in tackling our youth democracy crisis. We need to equip electoral registration officers with the right tools to make our democracy as strong as possible. This Bill, I suggest, is a leap in the right direction and I very much hope that the Government give it a fair hearing in this Parliamentary Session.

Not to do so will only fuel further resentment of decision-makers amongst future generations, making our bad situation, even worse.

* Lord Roberts of Llandudno is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords

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4 Comments

  • David Evershed 10th Jun '14 - 3:00pm

    People who don’t vote or who don’t even register to vote have no justification for resenting the law makers.

    It may be that today’s youth have been taught that the world owes them a living and that they have rights without any responsibilities. If so, they may feel resentful when they discover they have to earn their way in the world.

    It is good for democracy that people who don’t take an interest in politics don’t vote. I’d much rather have politicians selected by people who have made a small effort to register and vote.

  • Matt (Bristol) 10th Jun '14 - 3:23pm

    No, David Evershed, I disagree.
    There are people in every generation who believe the world owes them a living; some of these people vote and some don’t; don’t write off a generation like that.
    I suspect rather that we are facing a many parents are not voting, or are not explaining to their children why they are voting. Then their children never get the chance, or when they become young people never consider the requirement to register to vote until too close to an election.
    If Roger Roberts was arguing for universal compulsory registration, you may have a point, but he is not. If it works for blood donors, it will work for voters, and I commend this move.
    As Liberals and Democrats, we need to be behind moves to increase democratic participation in all age groups otherwise the society we strive for is unbuildable.

  • Seems like a good idea, until you realise the electoral roll is effectively recreated every year…

    Having looked at the Bite The Ballot website, I’m not sure what is so difficult about the online registration service ( https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote ) the site links to – although it perhaps could allow other forms of official ID such as passport or driving licence. Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting young people motivated to take voting seriously and so register, something that can only really be achieved through direct engagement, namely people visiting schools and colleges. I think forced registration won’t actually encourage more people to actually turn out and vote; to turn out and vote year-on-year requires people to not only be politically active but also have a sense of civic duty.

    Perhaps what is necessary is to campaign to get Bite the Ballot more publicity and increased funding to allow it to do more school/college visits…

  • peter tyzack 11th Jun '14 - 1:57pm

    there could be an easy inducement to get people to register online, a print-off discount voucher for use in local businesses that sign up, when the voucher has been stamped by the Polling Station…
    And to encourage voting, make the Poll Card into a Tombola ticket for each Polling Station to draw one winner as they close at the end of the day.

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