Today is National Voter Registration day, launched by our friends at Bite the Ballot.
Voter registration is an integral part of our democracy. If you’re not registered you can’t vote. Electoral boundaries are now also drawn based on the register, meaning under registration could lead to distortions in the boundaries.
In December 2015 Britain finished the biggest change to electoral registration since the introduction of universal suffrage – the move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER). The ERS supported the transition to Individual Electoral Registration, as previously an amorphous ‘head of household’ was empowered to register the fellow denizens of their household – a Victorian system that was thoroughly out of keeping with the modern world. Another advantage is that it is designed to reduce duplicates and incorrect entries, through using National Insurance numbers to verify that citizens are who they say they are.
That said, IER has had its problems. The ERS has repeatedly expressed its fear that a rush to Individual Electoral Registration would result in lower registration, especially amongst young people and ethnic minorities who might move on a regular basis. In 2014 the Electoral Commission found that more than 1 in 7 of us is not properly registered to vote. That IER could make this situation worse was seemingly confirmed by research released this week suggesting 800,000 people have dropped off the register.
Yet as well as threats, IER also creates opportunities. Due to the increased integrity of the register and the additional security it is possible to introduce several positive reforms. This is one of the most positive aspects of IER. One of the most obvious and easiest has already been introduced. You can now register to vote online, and if you are not registered we highly recommend you do. It barely takes a few minutes.
But we can go further than this. In the United States the National Voter Registration Act creates responsibility to offer the ability to register to vote during any interaction with the federal government. This law is known as the ‘Motor Voter’ Act as registrations regularly occur during the process of vehicle registration. Voters in the UK could be given the opportunity to register when they register at a new GP practice or at the DVLA for instance.
Another potential reform is same-day voter registration. In this process, common in American states and also used in Canada, voters can register to vote at the polling station (with safeguards, obviously, to prevent duplication). Given that voters tend to become engaged in the campaigns near Election Day and academic research shows that people increasingly do not make up their minds until the final moment, same day registration fits how people live and interact with their democracy.
Now that the transition to Individual Electoral Registration is complete, it’s time to take stock and think about how we can ensure millions aren’t missing from our democratic process. There’s lots we can do to improve our voter registration system even further – so let’s crack on with it.