Should copies of the electoral register be put on sale?

The Ministry of Justice is running a consultation on whether bodies such as marketing firms and charities should be able to buy copies of the electoral register to use for their direct mail and other operations. There is a high chance this review could lead to a change in the law.

There are currently three electoral registers:

  1. The full electoral register, which is used for running elections and which is available to political parties and election candidates for them to contact voters and other electoral purposes. It is also available to various law enforcement and other public sector organisations for use in their work.
  2. The edited electoral register, which is available for purchase. People can opt out of being included in this version (hence “edited”) and it is this version which underpins many a direct mail operation.
  3. The marked register, which is the full electoral register for any election along with records of who either voted in person or returned postal ballot papers.

The basic question is: should people be able to buy copies of the edited register and use it for purposes that are nothing to do with administering or fighting elections?

Within this is a set of more detailed debates:

  • Is it in principle wrong for the register to be for sale, or is opt out (or perhaps even opt in) sufficient?
  • If the sale of the electoral register is stopped, how will councils deal with losing the income they currently get from the sale? Are higher taxes or spending cuts an acceptable outcome?
  • How should credit reference agencies be treated? They are commercial organisations but people benefit from being able to get their address checked as part of credit checks.
  • Would stopping marketing firms buying the register really result in less unwanted junk mail or would it just mean their records are worse and direct mail is more likely to end up being misdirected or wrongly targeted (and hence ‘junk’) than at the present?
  • Should there be any differential treatment for ‘nice’ marketing, such as permitting charities to use the register for fundraising activities even if commercial firms are banned?
  • Would ending the sale of any form of the register mean people are more willing to get on the electoral register in the first place?

This consultation follows a report from Richard Thomas (Information Commissioner) and Mark Walport (Director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest charity) which recommended that sale of the register should be abolished. Therefore this is a very real consultation.

Councils have long argued they need the income from the sale of the register, but with the Information Commissioner and others putting pressure on from the other side the final outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

The review says:

The Government will consider a range of options for the future of the Edited Register, including abolition, changing the process by which individuals are included on it or improving public awareness of the Edited Register. Views are invited on the options set out in this paper, especially from those who may be directly affected.

You can read the full consultation and find out how to send in your own views here. The deadline is 23 February 2010. I’ve not yet decided what I’m going to say in my response, so you can also persuade me using the comments thread below… 🙂

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This entry was posted in Election law and News.
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16 Comments

  • Pavement Politico 26th Nov '09 - 12:29pm

    A lot of “voters” are only on the register for credit reference reasons. Any moves to de-couple it from commercial aims would surely see them cease to bother.

  • I am off the edited register (though on the full register of course!) because I don’t want junk mail. I suspect there are a lot of people who can’t be fussed with subtle distinctions between the edited register and the full register. They just keep well clear of registering altogether, because they fear it will make it easier for the police to chase them, the Council to chase them for Council tax, or their enemies to find them, let alone the junk mail issue!

    The priority must be to get these people the chance to vote. So should we ban the sale of the register except to bona fide credit reference agencies – and get rid of the “edited” version, thus abolishing some unnecessary bureaucracy?

  • As long as people have to right to opt out of the edited register (as I do) then I don’t have a problem with councils selling it. If it’s unreliable – well, that’s up to the companies buying it to check (caveat emptor and all that.)

  • Andrew Suffield 26th Nov '09 - 3:51pm

    Haven’t formed an opinion yet, but a point occurs to me:

    Banning the sale of the register is not going to keep it out of the hands of any of the people that you don’t want to have it. All it will do is stop the sale by the councils; people who want to will still obtain copies. Ignoring for a moment the rate at which the civil service loses laptops and backup media, there are thousands of people who have legitimate access to the full register – you simply cannot secure a document that is made this widely available. Bribery or simple theft will still work fine.

    So, given that it doesn’t stop anybody who is willing to resort to petty crime, does it do anything else useful?

  • Andrew McLean 27th Nov '09 - 9:02pm

    David may be pleased to learn that if he opts out of the edited register the credit reference agencies still have access to his information. The groups entitled to access to the full register include political parties, candidates, police, security services and credit reference agencies.

  • Goodness me, I’m so glad that credit reference agencies have unfettered access to citizens’ personal information that is ostensibly collected under pain of prosecution for the purposes of maintaining a register of eligible voters. Why, If they weren’t able to buy that information then banks and the like might very well go lending money to people that couldn’t afford to pay it back, leading to a global financial crisis and hardship for everyone………oh, hang on a minute.

    CR agencies being handed my personal information is the number one reason I’m not registered to vote, and have no intention of doing so. I fundamentally object to my personal details being shared with commericial companies, and refuse to co-operate with any system that tries to compel me to do so.

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