This simple change could help bring in the ‘missing millions’

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 15th October 2020

Peers have voted to include a simple amendment in the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill that could help enfranchise the next generation of voters.

Registering to vote seems like a natural first step in taking part in our democracy, but there’s much that can be done to improve the process here.

Many countries don’t have a separate electoral roll at all – everyone who is allowed to vote is automatically included on the list of electors.

The right to vote is one of the few rights that requires registration – you don’t have to register to exercise free speech. Like anything that adds an extra step, many people fall by the wayside.

We’ve long known of the ‘missing millions’ from the electoral roll – there are estimated to be over nine million left off the register. (It doesn’t help that you can’t check whether you’re registered online).

Moving to full automatic registration would be a game-changing reform. But there are lots of ways we can improve the system we have now.

At the moment, 16 and 17 year olds can register as ‘attainers’ on the electoral roll. This way, if there is a general election after they reach the voting age, they know they can take part. But registration rates for eligible 16 and 17- year olds were estimated to be just 25% in 2018. In contrast, 94% of those aged 65+ were estimated to be registered.

Campaigners have long argued that if the government knows enough about you to issue your National Insurance number when you are 16, they could ensure you’re able to vote. Everyone could start off registered to vote, and only need to update their record when they move house.

A cross-party group of peers passed an amendment by 293 votes last Thursday to 215 to do just this.

The amendment put forward by Lords Shutt, Wills, Janvrin and Lexden requires the government to bring forward proposals to improve the completeness of the electoral register with regards to ‘attainers’ for the purpose of boundary reviews.  

While not prescribing solutions, the amendment suggests enabling the automatic registration of 16- and 17 year olds when they receive their National Insurance number, or at least including details of how the individual can apply to join the register.  

Registration figures are used for more than just deciding who can vote – they are used to decide the size of constituencies themselves. Constituencies with more young people end up having more residents, while seats with more retired people are smaller. As age is a major factor in predicting voting behaviour – this adds a partisan element to something that should be devoid of electoral politics.

Automatically registering attainers should be just the first step in a registration revolution. Constituencies should be based on the population of eligible electors – not just the ones who have registered.

Voters should be able to register whenever they interact with the government, from registering with a GP to renewing their driving licence – and in the long run, registration should be automatic.

Rather than putting up bureaucratic barriers to engaging with politics, we should be ensuring everyone can use their vote. That would help all of us hold our political system to account.

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