The Cabinet Office last week announced a ‘further’ £9.8m of spending to promote voter registration. Some £6.8m is being allocated to local authorities, depending on their levels of under-registration. And up to £2.5m will be used to fund national activity, again aimed at under-registered groups. The remaining £500,000 is earmarked for ‘efforts to boost confidence in the elections process’.
While this money is welcome, at only about £3 per unregistered voter you have to question whether it will be anywhere near enough to tackle the UK’s problem of under-registration. And there are serious questions about whether the cash will be combined with an effective registration strategy which learns from what we know about what works.
The press release includes this statement: “It is up the individual authorities to decide on the best way to maximise voter registration in their area, which could include working with charities or other organisations working locally. This could include further letters to households – to help identify those who have moved home and invite those that need to register to do so – and more door-to-door canvassing, targeted either at under-registered groups such as students, or specific wards where registration rates are lower.”
Students and overseas voters are mentioned as under-registered groups. For students this is usually because they move house frequently and don’t register at every new address. This isn’t an issue unique to students; it covers much of the private rented sector – and explains low registration rates in cities like Edinburgh.
Not mentioned in the press release are other groups who have low rates of registration: homeless people; children in care; women who need to maintain their privacy due to history of domestic abuse – all of whom have additional hurdles to overcome in order to register to vote.
If the independence referendum taught us anything about voter engagement it’s that grassroots organisations, going to where people less likely to be registered actually live, and using innovative (yet often simple) methods, get more folk registered than officials and mailshots. The Radical Independence Campaign registered people outside football grounds at weekends; Scottish Women’s Aid ran a registration drive aimed at women experiencing domestic abuse, including raising awareness of anonymous registration. Local campaigners advertised availability of registration forms at local venues, making it as convenient as possible for people to register. As the Electoral Commission reports in its analysis of the referendum, working with partners whose communication channels are familiar and trusted helped reach otherwise hard-to-reach groups (Paragraph 3.66).
It’s important these lessons are learnt and techniques adopted across the UK.
Additionally, it should be made clear how success will be measured. What are the targets? Which are the under-registered groups in the listed recipient local authorities? Experience suggests the number of mail-outs will be considered a performance indicator. Now that online registration is live across the UK, surely actual new registrations should be the performance indicator?
Other questions this action provokes include how mass canvassing and registration will be managed alongside data-protection recommendations around the requirement to now provide your National Insurance number.
It could also be asked why we aren’t yet making administrative changes which are proven to increase registration AND turnout. In advance of the independence referendum, 11,373 people tried to register after the deadline up to and including polling day, and some 690 people attended polling stations wishing to vote without being registered. Same-day registration (as available in a number of US states) could greatly assist with those individuals who miss the deadline, or mistakenly believe they are registered.
Equally, ensuring that every interaction an individual has with the state prompts a request to check they are registered to vote (known in America as ‘motor voter’ as it commonly occurs when people receive a driving licence) could increase registration rates. Indeed, when the voting age is lowered to 16, the receipt of a National Insurance number could be accompanied by a request to register to vote.
Without any guidelines, performance indicators or additional changes in the process, the UK seems set to still have millions missing from the electoral register. When Facebook knows more about us than our closest friends, and our mobile phones can track our every move, it increasingly feels as if participating in democracy is stuck in the steam age, rather than evolving into the 21st century.
Find out more about the Electoral Reform Society’s work to improve voter registration