It’s time to talk about automatic voter registration

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 7th June 2016

Today is the deadline to register to vote in the EU referendum. In most of Europe, that concept would be considered strange.

Every election we see the same thing: a huge rush to register to vote a day or two before the deadline. And it will be no less the case today.

On Friday alone, 186,000 people applied to register to vote online, according to government data. That compares with the usual 10-15,000 a day we’d see outside of elections.

This arbitrary approach to the right to vote is fairly unique in the developed world. Why? Because most European countries have ensure that, as a citizen, you are automatically able to vote.

After all – if you have a passport, are registered for council tax and have a National Insurance number already, they’ve already got enough info to just stick you on the voter database.

There are huge issues of under-registration in this country, although we don’t even know how severe the extent of the problem is. At any one point, around 15% of those entitled to vote are not on the register. Electoral Commission data suggests a figure of 7.5m people not on the register who should have been in 2014.

And of course it varies hugely by demographic, too. The least-registered groups are largely the most mobile – young people – and those from already marginalised backgrounds.

If the ballot box is a social leveller, there remain huge inequalities in how we vote – even before we get to the voting booth.

Turnout is already a major issue when it comes to political equality. As Professor Matthew Flinders noted before the last General Election, “In the 1987 general election…the turnout rate for the poorest income group was 4% lower than for the wealthiest. By 2010 the gap had grown to a staggering 23 points.” It’s a similar picture for the ‘generation gap’: “In 1970 there was an 18-point gap in turnout rates between 18–24-year-olds and those aged over 65; by 2005 this gap had more than doubled to over 40 points.” If this is the case, having an individualist approach to voter registration can’t be helping the situation.

Of course, there are philosophical issues at stake. Britain has always had an individualist approach to voting – non-compulsory, highly localised, and voting for candidates rather than party lists. And we’ve just made it even more individualist – shifting from Household Registration to Individual Electoral Registration. Indeed, the US state of Oregon recently introduced ‘Motor Voting’ – where anyone who registers for a driving license is automatically registered to vote – in a move that some on the right described as a move from “individual convenience to government coercion”.

But as one American campaigner put it “I don’t have to opt in to my right for free speech, why should I have to opt in to my right to vote?” Working in Belgium, colleagues were shocked when I told them how many young people weren’t registered to vote in the UK. But not for the reason I’d guessed: “What, you have to register?” was the response I often heard.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation have spoken out on the impact of a voluntarist approach to registration, with Lord Rennard, Toby James and Oliver Sidorczuk pointing out in an article for Democratic Audit that at the last General Election, 186,000 applied after the deadline, while “others may think that they’re already registered and turn up at the polls anyway.” And people already assume we have automatic registration: “Many citizens think that they are on the register because the pay their council tax and expect those running the election to ‘know about them’. Two thirds of polling stations turned away voters who thought that they were on the electoral register but were not.”

Of course, there are wider issues at stake. Fully automatic registration would require a national database – something many are averse to. For many it raises the prospect of ID cards, although it isn’t inevitable. But the current last-minute rush for registration puts huge strain on the (perhaps bizarrely) devolved council registration offices – 400 or so of them – across the UK. The Electoral Commission doesn’t know the extent of the problem in part because we have such a fragmented database.

All this is compounded by the lack of a comprehensive program of citizenship education in the UK, meaning democratic habits aren’t engrained from a young age. After all, if young people were registered in schools in citizenship classes, perhaps all this would be less of a problem. And in the meantime, the APPG on Democratic Engagement have published an excellent report on the ‘Missing Millions’ with lots of practical reforms we can make now.

Oregon was the first to introduce Motor Voting in the US, and it looks like it could now spread. As we enter yet another huge rush to sign up before tomorrow’s deadline, perhaps it offers lesson for the UK.

If you’ve not already, register to vote by 23:59 on the 7th June here:

This article was first published on Left Foot Forward

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