In the wake of the pomp and pageantry of the Queen’s speech last week, a victory for the voter emerged from the Cabinet Office in the form of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill.
Last year the government’s draft bill on electoral registration seemed set to disenfranchise millions, creating a mockery of our electoral system by enabling citizens to simply ‘opt out’ of their democratic right to vote. The Electoral Commission estimated the proposals could lead to a drop in the completeness of electoral registers from over 90% to 65%.
Following months of campaigning by the Society, in which we presented evidence to the committee and lobbied hard to remove the most harmful elements of the bill, the bill introduced last Thursday is a million miles from its original draft. Gone is the bizarre ‘opt out’ and the annual canvass, critical for reaching voters who have moved during the year, has been reintroduced for 2014 (albeit by delaying the 2013 canvass). ERS has long argued that an annual canvass is necessary in the year individual registration is introduced in order to capture the two to three million people who will have moved in the months between canvass and introduction. It is also heartening to see that the government has listened to the Society’s concerns about abolishing the fine which registration officers rely on. The government will now legislate for a civil penalty similar to a parking fine.
Whilst we welcome these changes, it is no time for complacency. The devil is in the detail of the regulations and we will be scrutinising both this bill and the secondary legislation to ensure we do not see the sort of drop experienced in Northern Ireland when individual electoral registration was introduced there. The impact on postal and proxy voters is still a concern. Research by Scope found that in 2010, 67% of polling stations had one or more significant access barriers for disabled voters. It cannot be right that people with a regular postal or proxy vote who fail to notice the change are required to attend a polling station in order to exercise their democratic right.
The missing millions are still out there. With electoral registers only 87% complete at present we need to not only ensure more people do not drop off the register but to look at ways to increase registration across the board. Depleted electoral registers have greater democratic implications. They will be used to draw the next set of constituency boundaries which means unrepresentative registers will lead to unrepresentative constituencies – with some MPs representing many more constituents than others, most likely in inner city areas.
The leader of the opposition announced this weekend that his party would begin a voter registration drive. Clearly low levels of registration should be a concern to politicians, but is enough being done to tackle the root causes of the issue? Low registration is closely linked to low turnout but it is also indicative of a wider disconnect. Making voter registration easier will not address the underlying problems but it is an important step in making the processes of democracy more in-tune with ordinary citizens’ lives.
Abolishing the archaic system of household registration is the first step in what could be a greater modernisation of our electoral system; creating one that is appropriate for 21st century citizens and their lives. Individual electoral registration opens the door to further innovations in future, such as linking electoral registration to other citizen-state transactions like applying for a driving licence and online registration.
In October last year the proposals for individual voter registration were being called the biggest political scandal you’ve never heard of. The Society has campaigned hard to make voters' voices heard, and the government has listened. We have a better bill as a result.
To find out more about what the ERS has done on electoral registration visit our missing millions campaign page