Pete Jefferys, Shelter Policy Team
In the Shelter policy team we spend a lot of time thinking about how to get renting up the political agenda. Four in ten of the people who come to Shelter for housing advice rent privately and the number of renters is increasing rapidly as more and more families find themselves unable to buy a home. There are now more than 9m renters in England – which ought to be enough to get some serious political attention.
One problem we face is that renters are less likely to vote than home owners – so why should politicians care about them?
Private renters are historically less likely to vote than home owners (Source: Ipsos Mori)
Why is this? Evidence suggests that the two main factors are demographics and the lack of stability in the sector. Renters are 11 times more likely to move home each year than those with a mortgage. If you don’t expect to be able to stick around due to short contracts and rent rises you might wonder why bother registering or voting?
Low registration and turnout shouldn’t just be a worry for Shelter: it’s a problem for our democracy. If the growing proportion of renters makes turnout at elections fall, surely those concerned about democratic accountability will demand action to prevent a growing chunk of the electorate falling out of political representation.
Particularly worrying from a renter registration perspective at the moment is the move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER) next year, and constituency boundaries based on electoral registers with falling numbers of renters on them.
In Northern Ireland, where IER was introduced and the annual canvass abolished in 2002, renter registration fell from 63% to 26% within just five years .
Proposals for future constituency boundaries risk crowding out renters’ voices even more (though the boundary review has now been delayed). The plan to base constituencies for the 2020 election on the electoral register in 2015 which is likely to see a fall in renters, means that there could be many more hidden households in future, especially renters. This could even lead to a situation where an MP is technically representing 70,000 voters, but actually has many more people living in their constituency area.
In recent weeks we’ve been having really constructive conversations with the Electoral Reform Society and others about how to tackle this problem and give renters a voice. We recognise that there are many benefits to IER (such as reduced voter fraud), and that the solution may come from practical steps to increase renters’ registration. Awareness campaigns, working with landlords and letting agents to provide registration forms, even increasing the length of tenancies to reduce churn, could all be ways to help renters gain political clout. Grass-roots registration campaigns – like Bite the Ballot for young people – are another proven way to increase registration.
We’ll keep pushing for politicians to care about renters: and as they grow in absolute numbers smart politicians are bound to recognise the opportunity. But we need all the support we can get from those who care about democracy to make sure that renters are fairly represented, rather than being locked out.
By Dr Toby S James, Swansea University
In the 1980s American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, alongside the organisation Human SERVE, campaigned to make voting and registering to vote easier for citizens. At the time, America was concerned about low levels of turnout and registration. The campaigners argued for measures such as allowing citizens to register to vote at various public offices such as welfare offices and childcare centers, with the aim of promoting participation amongst groups where it was traditionally low.
Their campaign culminated in the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). This expanded the number of locations and opportunities whereby eligible citizens could apply to register to vote. In particular, citizens were to be given a voter registration application when they applied for or renewed a driver’s license, or when applying for (or receiving) services at certain other public offices. It was praised by many as being a triumph for the civil rights movement which had previously fought to abolish the Jim Crow laws. Signing the law, President Bill Clinton declared that:
The victory we celebrate today is but the most recent chapter in the overlapping struggles of our Nation’s history to enfranchise women and minorities, the disabled, and the young with the power to affect their own destiny … Today we celebrate our noble tradition by signing into law our newest civil rights law…’
Some campaigners, including Piven and Cloward, were disappointed that the Act didn’t go far enough. Nonetheless, the legacy of NVRA is clear. Today, a huge proportion of new registrants use this mechanism to register to vote in the US. Data from the US Electoral Assistance Commission shows that 37.1 per cent of registration forms were submitted via motor vehicle agencies in 2010. Over 18 million citizens used this method in 2008. Subsequent empirical studies showed how this (and other methods) could improve registration rates (see here for an overview). Frances Fox Piven and colleagues later argued that the effect on registration could have been greater had federal agencies worked harder to enforce the Act.
Fast-forward twenty years and cross the Atlantic to 2012. Today, the UK is in need of similar reforms. The government is planning to introduce individual voter registration as part of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. This involves making registering to vote more bureaucratic for many citizens. Registration is currently conducted on a household basis meaning that one person can register every citizen in each house. The proposals will require each individual to register themselves and provide personal identifiers such as national insurance number. These will be checked against government databases to check whether they are legitimate voters.
I have recently undertaken research on UK electoral administration and the effects that individual electoral registration will have. This will be published in Parliamentary Affairs very shortly (download a pre-print here) and is based on extensive interviews with local election officials. The research suggests that:
These proposals come at a time of serious electoral registration decline. An Electoral Commission Report in December suggested that the parliamentary electoral register was as low as 82.3 per cent. As I have argued in a previous blog post, the UK compares poorly internationally. Under-registration is a serious problem for UK democracy.
Individual electoral registration was announced in a White Paper in June last year. Since then the government has already shifted its position on a number of policy positions. For example, the ‘opt-out’, whereby citizens could tick a box and not be included on the register has been dropped. Nick Clegg hinted that this might happen in October last year. The proposed Bill suggests that there will be now be a penalty for those who do not register. These changes must be, and have been, welcomed by campaigners such as the Electoral Reform Society, who launched their Missing Millions campaign in response to the government’s initial plans.
The government has invested much hope in using data-matching to improve electoral registration. Data-matching pilot schemes were initially launched to check the accuracy and to identify people who may be eligible to vote and then invite them to apply to register. In February 2012 it was suggested that ‘the names and addresses of all individuals currently on an electoral register will be matched against the data held by public bodies such as the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities themselves’ and that ‘[i]f an elector’s information can be matched, the individual will be automatically placed onto the new IER register and would not need to take any further action to be registered under IER’ (see: here). This too must be welcome news for those seeking to maximise electoral registration.
Unfortunately, the Electoral Commission’s evaluation of the initial data-matching schemes did not fully test such an approach and instead highlighted a number of concerns about relying on data-matching. It suggested that the process was labour intensive with significant work required to analyse the data. Moreover, the approach ‘did not prove very effective at getting new electors on to the registers’. Only 7,917 citizens were added in the 22 pilots (although this is still enough to win a few marginal constituencies). This leaves efforts to improve electoral registration levels somewhat in the air.
The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill therefore offers the opportunity to address this. Here are some recommendations, based on my research findings:
1. The government could therefore consider other new schemes to offset the anticipated decline. These might include:
2. Measures should be put in place to ensure sufficient long-term funding of elections. This could involve ring-fencing new funding for election departments. Individual electoral registration will cost more money to implement. Data-matching will cost more money to implement. Elections in America are littered with examples of where there have been problems (Florida, 2000) indirectly or directly resulting from underfunding. The Electoral Commission has pointed out that the government ‘has not yet explained how funding will be allocated.’
3. The views of citizens towards the registration process should be carefully monitored through survey and focus-group research after the implementation of IER. This is important because my research showed that the requirement for citizens to provide personal identifiers, such as a national insurance number, may confuse many voters. Or they may be reluctant to provide personal identifiers to election officials.
4. A detailed implementation plan for individual electoral registration is published as soon as possible. Electoral administrators need time to change software, re-skill staff and change processes.
Changes to the way the electoral register is compiled does not always capture the public or media’s interest in the way that it did, and still does, in America. But it has important implications for how many people vote, electoral fraud, whether people perceive electoral institutions to be fair and sometimes who wins elections. There have been some excellent recent blog posts from the like of Ros Baston, Mark Pack, Stuart Wilks-Heeg and others in recent months and weeks. Let’s hope there remains continued public interest in this important, but easily forgotten, issue.
About the author
Toby S. James is a Lecturer in the Department of Political and Cultural Studies at Swansea University. He is the author of Elite Statecraft and Election Administration (2012, Palgrave Macmillan). He is currently working on a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation and McDougall Trust on performance management and election administration.
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
A year ago the Yes campaign was soundly defeated in the AV referendum. Bad timing, an imperfect alternative and an opposition willing to fight dirty all worked in favour of First Past the Post, and 67.9% of voters opted for the status quo.
However, the vote against the AV was not a vote of confidence in FPTP.
Referendums, by their very nature, tend towards oversimplification in order to achieve clear outcomes. On May 5th 2011 voters were not asked “are you in favour of a more representative voting system?” they were asked “should the Alternative Vote system be used?” – a very different question.
So this year we decided to ask the real question. And, as expected, the results were very different.
“The UK should use a different voting system that would give parties a share of seats in Parliament that more closely reflects their share of votes”
Polling by Populus for the Electoral Reform Society 
A year on from AV only 1 in 5 people support the current system. The majority of British voters agree that parliament needs fair votes.
The Society’s goal of a truly representative democracy therefore remains unchanged. We are still campaigning for reform but now we are able to use the lessons from the referendum to inform our approach. The Yes campaign highlighted that it is difficult to persuade people to vote for change if they don’t recognise the problem in the first place, so we are working harder to highlight the problems before we offer solutions.
So how does our post-referendum approach play out in practical terms?
Firstly, we are continuing to push for reform in local government by showing that First Past the Post is unfit for purpose and that there is a tried-and-tested and genuinely democratic alternative.
This week Scottish voters went to the polls, in the second set of local elections since they moved from First past the Post to STV. And once again it meant voters got what they asked for. No more safe seats, no more uncontested seats, just fair votes for all and a fair share for parties and independents. We won the fight for PR in Scottish local government, and it’s already making a big difference. Voters in England and Wales should settle for nothing less.
Secondly, we’re lobbying the government to make changes that will create fairer politics. Political reform remains high on the government’s agenda, presenting us with multiple opportunities.
For example, Lords’ reform is being debated as we speak. The coalition pledged to reform the Upper House, so we’re holding them to account and pushing for a fairly elected Lords. We’ve exposed the attempt to bring in a self serving system that would have packed the upper house with party Yes men and women. And we’ll keep piling on the pressure.
We’ve also been winning the argument on sweeping reforms of Electoral Registration – some of the biggest changes to the way we vote since the Universal Franchise. Last year we heeded the warnings from the Electoral Commission that changes could mean 10 million disappearing from our democracy. Not only was the government planning to let voters ‘opt out’ from their democracy, millions of people would simply slip through the cracks and off the electoral register.
We’ve taken the lead on this, and scored some big wins. But the government are still ignoring warnings from registration officers and charities who are all saying the same thing: that crossing their fingers and hoping for the best is not good enough. We need a safety net to ensure that millions of us do not lose our say at the next election. The government must rule out the opt out once and for all; otherwise it risks undermining the act of voting as a civic duty. Electoral registers are not mailing lists; they are the nuts and bolts of British democracy. Ending the opt out is a battle we intend to win.
And thirdly, we’re campaigning to bring about change on big issues which are seeing the parties talk and yet fail to take action.
For the first time in a generation the number of women in positions of power is heading south. From cabinet to local government, it’s impacting on every level of our government. So together with partners Fawcett Society, Hansard Society, the Centre for Women and Democracy and Unlock Democracy we launched the Counting Women In campaign. At this rate even our daughters will be claiming their pensions before they get an equal voice in the government of our country. We don’t think that’s good enough, so we’re putting pressure on the government to change the political culture and on political parties to do more to encourage women. David Cameron promised that one third of his minsters would be women by the end of his first term as Prime Minster – so we are petitioning him to make sure he keeps that promise.
The referendum propelled the electoral reform debate into the public arena for the first time since the early 1930s. 6 million supported change, putting electoral reform back on the political agenda and giving organisations like us a much stronger platform from which to lobby and campaign.
Polling shows we have reasons to be cheerful, but now is not the time for complacency.
We’ve regrouped and we’re establishing ourselves as the voice of the voters on democratic reform. From what’s been described as ‘gerrymandering’ of constituency boundaries to party funding, we are leading the debate and holding the politicians to account. Our goal is a level playing field in our elections – and it must be achieved, whether politicians like it or not.
 Weighted sample 2053 British adults. NET: agree 1058 (52%) Strongly agree 458 (22%) Slightly agree 600 (29%) Neither agree nor disagree 666 (27%) Slightly Disagree 190 (9%) Strongly disagree 250 (12%) NET: disagree 400 (21%).
The Electoral Commission’s latest report into voter registration shows that 6 million voters are currently missing from the register and with the government set to introduce Individual Electoral Registration (IER) in 2012, there is a danger that millions more could disappear before the next election.
IER represents the biggest change to the way we do elections since the Universal Franchise and while it is the right move in terms of tackling the accuracy of the register it is vital that the government take on board widespread concerns about its impact on completeness.
The completeness of our electoral registers is a marker of the health of our democracy and the Commission’s report demonstrates that the current gaps are not simply the ‘usual suspects’.
Of those of us who moved house since the 2010 canvuss, only 14% were still on the registers in April 2011. Only 56% of people living in private rented homes are currently registered, a massive 26% below the national average.
Young people and those from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities are also at risk under the current system with only 77% of people from BME communities registered (compared with 86% of white people) and almost half (46%) of 19-24 year olds not registered, compared with only 6% of 65+ unregistered.
Most worrying of all 44% of those not on the registers in April 2011 incorrectly believed that they were. This is due to some worrying misconceptions: 43% of the public believe that you are automatically registered to vote if you are 18 or over and 31% think that you are automatically registered to vote if you pay council tax. These aren’t people who don’t want to engage with their civic duty, these are people who through a lack of correct information are being cut off from having a voice in their democracy.
IER is the right move but the report throws a light on how vital it is that measures are taken to protect and grow the current lists. To avoid IER causing a further depletion in the numbers of registered voters the Government’s proposals must change. We’re asking that the government…
It is obviously time to replace a Victorian ‘head of household’ with individual responsibility for registration. The issue is implementation, and in an era of uncertainty and increasing civil disengagement, it is imperative that we get it right.
You can download a full copy of the Electoral Commission report on Great Britain’s electoral registers 2011 here.