5 simple ways to improve how we do democracy

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 20th September 2016

It seems like the distant past now, but in the few weeks up to the registration deadline for the EU referendum, more than 1.35 million people applied to register.

On the day of the deadline, 525,000 people applied to register to vote.

And then, when the website crashed around midnight and the government extended the deadline to register, 400,000 applied to vote. All big numbers.

The thing is, a huge proportion of those people were already signed up. Yet they had no easy way of knowing if they were already on the register. And because of the devolved nature of registration in the UK (there’s no national database – it’s all sent to individual councils), over-worked local electoral administrators get sent thousands of application requests from people already on the register – with just a few weeks before the vote. All of which just causes a headache for all those involved – voter and ERO.

So a new report released today by the Association of Electoral Administrators raises a very sensible suggestion: there should be some way of checking you’re on the register.

This ‘lookup facility’ – which would presumably have a decent verification process and opt-outs for those on the full (closed) register and the ‘anonymous register’ (for those who have experienced domestic violence and abuse etc.) – would be hugely helpful in making elections go as smoothly as possible, and free up time for electoral officers to focus on making sure the actual vote itself is well-planned and conducted.

That’s not the only sensible proposal. Among other things, the AEA are also calling for:

•         A standard legislative timetable which should apply to all elections, with a view to ‘extending some aspects’ – something that very much echoes our recent ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote recommendations

•         A review of the risks introduced by the combination of polls we saw earlier this year – when Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Police and Crime Commissioner elections and some local elections happened on the same day – and just a month or so before a very different vote on the EU, sometimes causing a worrying conflation and clash of debates.

•         A single Electoral Administration Act – something the Law Commission recently recommended – setting out the framework governing elections and referendums in the UK. This framework would govern all votes as standard, ‘with the operational detail of registration, absent voting, and elections contained in secondary legislation – all with the key aim of achieving the simplification and consistency of rules across all electoral administration matters’. Knowing where you stand – or, in other words, the rule of law – is absolutely crucial in ensuring people have faith in our democracy, so this is a perfectly reasonable call.

·        ‘The government should make provision for either a candidates’ mailing or the delivery of a booklet containing information about PCC elections and about the candidates to all households’. This is a very welcome call – our research in the run up to May showed that 9 in 10 people couldn’t name their local Police and Crime Commissioner. That’s a big problem for democracy and the legitimacy of those roles. So alongside their call for the Electoral Commission to develop a full set of templates and resources for PCC elections, this would be a good start in remedying that.

It’s great to see another body calling for ways to improve how we do democracy in the UK – and we hope the government looks closely at the report. And soon, too. After all, who knows when the next referendum might be?…

Read the Association of Electoral Administrators’ new report, ‘Pushed to the absolute limit: 2016 – the electoral year never to forget

And read the ERS’ definitive report on the EU referendum debate, ‘It’s Good to Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote’

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