Deadline Day: Our Voter Registration System Needs An Overhaul

Posted on the 13th April 2017

On the evening of the 7th June last year – just a couple of weeks before the EU referendum – the website to register to vote crashed.

Cue havoc, thousands of disappointed and angry people, and then an arbitrary extension of the registration deadline once the site was back up. On the whole, it was a slightly embarrassing affair for the government and Britain’s system of registration.

It all fell to pieces an hour before the midnight deadline, with tens of thousands of people trying to sign up.

There are all sorts of arguments about why it might have happened – including the lack of proper ‘stress testing’ of the site to see how it would cope with high demand.

This week a report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) suggests that it could even have been down to a ‘Distributed Denial of Service’ attack – flooding the site with fake traffic to shut it down – by a foreign state.

Either scenario is concerning – although the latter clearly has much more serious implications. Whatever caused it though, it needn’t have happened.

There were anecdotal reports from Electoral Returning Officers that 9 out of 10 of applications to register around the EU vote were from people already signed up – they were just worried they weren’t. That’s a pretty shoddy state of affairs for a modern democracy.

Crash or no crash, every year we see the palaver of thousands rushing to register to vote. Again, even if they’re already on the register. In the long run, we need to consider bolder moves to make participation as easy as possible – such as automatic registration. But in the meantime, surely it is not beyond our means as a country to let people check if they’re on the register.

Today, PACAC has joined us and the Electoral Commission in calling for this fairly un-radical change, in their report on lessons from the EU referendum. It’s a report that contains some very sensible suggestions – including consolidating referendum law, extending purdah (the time that public bodies must be impartial and avoid prejudicing the result), and reforming how the official campaigns are picked.

Rumours of hacking aside, last year’s seismic registration surge disproved the myths about a lack of public interest – they turned up in droves but were let down by the system. So this is a good practical means to help participation.

What then needs to happen is a registration revolution – steps to ensure that registration isn’t a lottery but is instead encouraged at every stage of interaction with official bodies, from sorting pensions to getting a driving license or benefits.

Thursday is the deadline to register to vote in time for the local elections in England and Wales next month. It will most likely see a surge in people registering five minutes up to the deadline – the now-familiar annual rigmarole. This stuff sounds technical, but it’s about who participates in our democracy – and small barriers can have huge effects when they affect millions of people.

The committee’s call for change is new momentum for reform of our registration system. And the call is growing – both inside and outside of Parliament.

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