Opinion: Could low voter registration cost the Lib Dems seats?

The Hansard Society’s latest Audit of Political Engagement has added to the view that there is likely to be another risible turnout at the impending General Election. The study finds that only 54% say they are certain to vote.

The Hansard Society have offered some ideas about how to boost turnout. They suggest that more should be done to target groups such as the ‘disenchanted and mistrustful’. Apparently, a quarter of adults, mostly young and working-class, fall into this category of voters who distrust politicians but not yet entirely hostile.

But a report from the Electoral Commission would suggest that efforts to get these voters to the polling station may often fall at the first hurdle. The report suggests that voter registration levels have fallen compared to the late 1990s and that non-registration is especially high among younger voters – more than half of whom are absent from the registers. It also expresses concerns about a likely growth in non-registration in metropolitan areas beyond London – the Labour heartlands in Northern England, south Wales and central Scotland, where large number of disenchanted working class voters will be found.

Might patterns of electoral registration impact on the outcome of the General Election? At first sight, it might seem unlikely. Even allowing for predictions of the tightest content since 1992, it might be assumed that a rise in non-registration among young and working-class voters would make little difference. While 18-29 year olds make up around 14 per cent of the electorate, less than half of voters in this age bracket have cast ballots at the last two general elections. Likewise the decline in registration levels in provincial metropolitan areas might seem equally insignificant – after all, these areas consist almost entirely of safe Labour sets, most of them with whopping majorities and, in recent years, low turnouts.

In actual fact, what candidates, parties and electoral administrators do over the next few weeks to boost registration levels among younger voters, in particular, could have a real bearing on the election. Consider two of the more intriguing local contents, for instance. In Brighton Pavillion, a three-way marginal where Caroline Lucas has a realistic chance of becoming the UK’s first Green MP, one quarter of the population is aged 18-29. In Bethnal Green and Bow, where Labour will hope to recapture the seat after George Galloway’s narrow victory for Respect in 2005, the proportion of 18-29 year olds is slightly higher, at 27 per cent.

But the registration and mobilisation of the youth vote will matter most of all to the Liberal Democrats. In a significant number of Lib Dem seats, 18-29 year olds make up between one-fifth and one-third of the potential electorate. These include Cardiff Central (34%), Cambridge, Bristol West and Leeds North West (all 31%), Manchester Withington (29%), Oxford East (26%), and Sheffield Hallam (21%).   And we know from repeated opinion polls that the Lib Dems have proportionately more support amongst 18-29 year olds than they do amongst older voters.

Notably, several of these seats are in the very same metropolitan areas where registration levels appear to have slumped generally. But the most obvious connection between them is that they are all areas with large student populations.

There are others too. In Ceredigion, a largely rural Welsh seat containing two universities, the Lib Dems are defending a majority of less than 300; and there are at least 13,000 young people eligible to be on the register. In Bath, where the Lib Dem majority is around 4,500, there are 16,000 potential voters in the 18-29 age bracket. Likewise, the youth vote may well prove be crucial in a number of Lib Dem target seats, including Oxford East, where 26% of the population is aged 16-29, and the City of Durham, where they make up 21% of potential voters.

The Liberal Democrats are already hamstrung by an electoral system that is incapable of reflecting the balance of votes cast.  What seems to be emerging from the Electoral Commission’s findings is that the failings of the voter registration system has become another unfair hurdle for us to negotiate.  There is of course the not inconsiderable matter that people, regardless of their affiliation, are being effectively disenfranchised as well.

The government’s belated plans to move towards a system of individual voter registration are an opportunity for a fundamental and strategic review of how we organise voter registration in the UK.  Up until now it has tended to be too hands off, with local Electoral Registration Officers more or less left to their own devices (aside from the odd statutory obligation here and there).  The Electoral Commission has been attempting to address this in recent years but is itself handicapped by the fact that the government has no statutory obligation to adopt or even respond to its recommendations.  Reducing the voting age might help as well, by getting people into the habit of voting with the help of the more structured school environment.

We are seeing disengagement become intergenerational: people who don’t vote at a young age are less likely to vote later in life and, in turn, are more likely to produce non-voting offspring. If these trends continue then in the longer term this doesn’t just mean fewer Lib Dem MPs but will bring into question the legitimacy of our political process itself.

You can make sure you are registered to vote by visiting http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/

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This entry was posted in Election law, General Election and Op-eds.


  • paul barker 5th Mar '10 - 2:38pm

    Can I suggest that you read Mark Packs article & then withdraw your own ? Your peice adds an extra layer of sloppyness to the journalists Mark criticised by quoting the figure of 54% certain to vote without giving one for those certain not to vote. The 46% will be mostly voters who are uncertain, before the campaign has even begun, many of them will vote on the day.

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Mar '10 - 3:21pm

    We probably should be questioning the legitimacy of our political process. Considering the history of how we came by it, it’s fairly remarkable when it actually works.

  • Hey
    I’ve been interested in this issue as well. I am a young person (well, 22) and I would like to get more people registered. Though I’m very aware we have very very little time life if we were were to actively go out and pursue this. Which I wouldn’t mind doing.

    However I have found no organisations that do this. It baffles me. Completely. Do you know of any? Non-partisan if possible.


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