The implications of Individual Voter Registration

Mary Southcott

Image © Chris Lee

The Coalition Government’s White Paper on Individual Electoral Registration (IER) claimed:

to take forward the commitment in the Coalition Agreement to speed up the move to IER and tackle electoral fraud. The current household registration system will be replaced by individual registration.  Every elector will have to register individually and provide identifying information which will be used to verify their entitlement to be included in the electoral register. Only once their application has been verified can a person be added to the register. This will help to restore trust in electoral system.

The measures set out in the paper were recommended by the Committee for Standards in Public Life back in 2007 and supported by the previous Labour government.

However, there are some worrying implications behind such laudable stated goals; namely that 10 million people could lose their right to vote if the government’s proposals come to fruition. The right to vote will once again become the preserve of the middle classes again in our supposedly inclusive parliamentary democracy.

Background

Although the White Paper on Individual Electoral Registration – presented to Parliament by Nick Clegg and Mark Harper, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform – came out in June 2011, it wasn’t until last September, when the Electoral Commission (EC) gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee, that people started to understand the implications of the draft legislation it contained.

It was not so much the individual registration that caused the alarm although many thought a sledgehammer had been brought in to smash the nut of electoral fraud under the present system.  It was the conjunction of the voluntary nature of the Canvass, both for the individual and local councils, with the reduction in number of MPs and with the commitment to make the registered population of each of the 600 new Constituencies as equal as possible that has led to doubt. The draft legislation increases the likelihood that only the “low hanging fruit” – those keen on politics and voting – would register.  Participation in our democracy would become a life-style choice.  Ten million could find themselves excluded from the political process.  Even under the present system of household registration, it is estimated that six million people are not registered to vote.

Snuck in through the back door

When the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was introduced, the Lib Dems took their collective eye off the ball because they were desperate to have the AV Referendum legislation go through in time for May.  Labour simply looked at how the reduction in seats, from 650 to 600, would hit their number of MPs.  The Fawcett and Fabian Societies pointed to the difficulty in increasing the percentage of both women and ethnic minorities in Parliament in the scrabble for fewer seats.

Impact

Let’s accept that individual registration is a good idea in principle.  Why then have the Electoral Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, followed closely by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy, and more recently Martin Kettle of the Guardian been making a song and dance about it?

Because these dissenting voices expect levels of registration to fall.  These reforms will have a “marked and potentially partisan effect” on the parliamentary constituency boundaries to be used in the 2020 general election.  One doesn’t need to be a genius to realise that there are more people arriving and leaving, living in rented accommodation, in central city constituencies and that these people are disproportionately young and/or members of a minority ethnic group.

Now that the Commissions are not allowed to take these facts into consideration they risk inadvertently creating inequality – particularly of voice and influence – between urban and rural constituencies. Inegalitarian distribution of the UK’s electorate is supposed to be the target of the Coalition’s reforms. The Coalition Agreement sets out a policy of creating fewer and more equally sized constituencies.  Whether this equality of size is based on population or population registered to vote, it would seem sensible to also ensure that an equality of size is accompanied by an equality of opportunity to be represented. These reforms put that ideal under threat.

What can we do?

Ways of compensating for the loss would might include automatic addition to the register of people who pay council tax, council tenants, those in receipt of benefits, have driving licenses, plus perhaps the registration of students at the age of 16 by schools and colleges. There could be election-day registration as in an increasing number of US states. These measures could be reinforced by introducing votes at 16 and establishing voting habits early with citizenship education, school elections and discussion.

The annual canvass should not be amended or abolished without full discussion and certainly not by secondary legislation. Political Parties can of course take more responsibility for persuading their supporters and others to go on the register but they cannot compensate for the hard-to-contact or ensure that they are equally represented in the electorate.  And even if an on-the-day registration was made possible, political parties will not be contacting or listening to those off the register in houses or flats that they ignore in their own canvassing.

The combination of IER with a voluntary element to being on the register, cuts in terms of local government spending on the canvass and the linkage with boundaries which – under first past the post – determine our elections, will all undermine the democratic nature of our electoral arrangements. In terms of the 2016-2018 boundary review, the result could disenfranchise millions.  Given the long struggle required to establish a universal franchise in this country, from the Chartists, through the suffragettes, to lowering the voting age to 18, we consider that the current proposals will amount to mass disenfranchisement and create an intolerable democratic deficit in the UK.

This article is co-published by Left Central and Democracy 4 Dorset

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