Worth a second outing: What’s the point of switching to individual electoral registration?

Welcome to a series where old posts are revived for a second outing for reasons such as their subject has become topical again, they have aged well but were first posted when the site’s readership was only a tenth or less of what it is currently or they got published and the site crashed, hiding the finest words of wisdom behind an incomprehensible error message. This one is from Spring last year and has been slightly updated.

After a long period of stalling, the Labour Government finally announced in spring 2009 a timetable for switching Britain’s electoral registration system from one based on households to one based on individuals. The Electoral Commission, Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats had been calling for such a switch for a long time, and speeding up the move is a priority of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, but what’s the reason for making the switch?

The current electoral registration system is based on one registration form being delivered to each household, with the head of the household completing the form on behalf of everyone there and sending it back (“household registration”).

Electoral register formOne reason therefore for switching to individual registration is a point of principle: someone’s ability (if they aren’t the head of a household) to vote shouldn’t be dependent on whether or not someone else has filled in a form for them.

This switch will also reduce the problems with rented property, where in urban areas particularly it is far from rare for electoral registration forms to be filled in with the name of the landlord (only), resulting in those living in a property not being registered and someone who really lives elsewhere being put on the register at that address.

Individual registration will also allow the recording of “personal identifiers” such as signatures. This will in turn make it possible to tackle the risks of impersonation at polling stations. At the moment, there is relatively little protection against “impersonation” – turning up at a polling station, claiming to be someone else and getting to vote in their name.

As anti-fraud measures for postal and proxy voting have improved (largely due to the collection of personal identifiers from those applying for such votes), there’s a risk that without action fraudsters will switch to using impersonation instead. Requiring voters to supply their identifiers, and checking them against the ones given when they registered, would make such impersonation much harder.

There is a risk that the switch to individual registration will result in fewer people registering – because rather than relying on someone else completing a form, everyone has to fill in their own form. This is what happened initially in Northern Ireland when it made the switch, although registration numbers did then bounce back to a large degree. There is likely to be a particular issue with universities, where currently the university authorities often automatically register all students who are living in university accommodation.

For the switch to be a success, it will require a significant publicity campaign, and may well also see political parties start to get more heavily involved in pushing registration than in the past. However, with both we can have a more secure electoral system which, by increasing confidence in our electoral system, also helps increase public involvement in elections.

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This entry was posted in Election law.
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2 Comments

  • the benefit of individual registration si that it will make the boundary review to equalise constituency size completely inaccurate !

    If only the people who agree to these things actually knew anything about what they were doing !

    Quite simply, individual registration will lead to a big slump in voter registration (mostly Lib Dem and Labour inclined voters) The new seats for 2015 General Election will be based on the Dec 2010 register – on the old system – great !

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