The battle to save the missing millions

14 Dec 2011

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…


  • Drops the Opt-Out: An ‘opt out’ is incompatible with civic duty. By enabling individuals to ‘opt out’, the UK Government’s existing plans risk a reduction in the number of individuals registered to vote.  Being on the register is about rights and responsibilities – determining how public services are delivered, underpinning the right to trial by jury of your peers, and even setting how political boundaries are drawn for your community. The Electoral Commission estimates that a new register could be as low as 65% complete.  Certain parts of the UK Government’s plans are compulsory, whilst other parts are voluntary: this contradiction risks confusion amongst voters and potentially, Electoral Registration Officers


  • Transfers over the threat of penalty: Many Electoral Registration Officers report that the threat of £1,000 penalty acts as a drive for ensuring people register to vote.  Again, the UK Government’s plans to drop the threat of penalty will further suppress registration levels


  • Re-instates 2014 Annual Canvas: Without a full household canvass in 2014, the 2015 register (the first register operating under the new system) risks being significantly incomplete. This will further disenfranchise voters. The year before a General Election is no time for shortcuts. Reinstating the canvass will guard against the 1% per/month drop in completeness in the register outlined by the Commission


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.