By Joshua.Chambers

11 Oct 2012

By the time of the next election, citizens will have to register to vote using an entirely new system. Joshua Chambers examines the government’s plans for individual voter registration, and the challenges they present

It’s a right and a responsibility, a duty and a privilege. Voting is the central way in which people participate in our democracy, so changes to our registration and voting system are extremely important.

From June 2014, the rules surrounding voter registration will change. Each citizen will be responsible for registering to vote – a change from the current model, under which the head of a household registers everyone living at that address.

The potential impact of this reform is enormous. If it’s done badly, millions of people could fail to register, and thus be unable to vote come polling day; so the Cabinet Office has been running a project to manage the transition and ensure citizens aren’t disenfranchised. CSW has spoken to those involved with the project, and to outside organisations managing the transition, to understand the scale of the challenge and how potential problems are being handled.

Reform of our voter registration system is, the Cabinet Office argues, necessary for a number of reasons. “We’ve clung to the old-fashioned notion that you give the responsibility to one person in the household to register everyone else,” Chloe Smith, constitutional reform minister until this week’s reshuffle, said recently. The government believes the current system doesn’t work well for people in social or privately-rented housing – especially those who move regularly, such as students. It also provides a greater opportunity for electoral fraud, whereas the new system requires voters to provide identifying information, making the register more accurate.

The move is supported by the Electoral Commission, which thinks it is long overdue. The Electoral Reform Society agrees: Katie Ghose, its chief executive, argues that “we’re one of the last countries to have a Victorian, household system of registration, and it is a more modern approach to make registration a matter for individuals.”

Further, the move has cross-party support – in principle. “The last Labour government introduced individual electoral registration in Northern Ireland, so our commitment to it is absolutely firm,” says Wayne David MP, Labour’s shadow minister for constitutional reform until, like Smith, he was moved earlier this week.

But in practice, Labour is sceptical of the timescale for reform. Voters are being encouraged to register individually before the 2015 general election: councils have been tasked with knocking on doors to check their records, with the aim of completing the transition by 2016. “They are hell-bent on introducing full Individual Electoral Registration (IER) in December 2015,” says David. “That timescale, frankly, is illogical, will create enormous problems, and I think it is politically inspired for the worst possible reasons.” He thinks the move will see a dip in the number of people registered to vote, and is suspicious of the concurrent move to redraw electoral boundaries using the reformed electoral roll, rather than statistics on the disposition of the over-18 population.

David believes that any potential dip would be most likely in inner city and poorer areas – the Labour heartlands – and would therefore cut the number of Labour supporters registered to vote. What’s more, if the new roll is used to redraw constituency boundaries, many missing Labour voters would be ignored.

The ERS also fears a dip in voter registration: Ghose says “we have concerns that vulnerable groups, people moving home, certain black and ethnic minority groups will be more at risk under the new system, and there could be a danger of people losing out.”

The Cabinet Office counters that it wants to move quickly because IER is a positive change that shouldn’t be unnecessarily delayed. It’s important that there’s a new system to better prevent electoral fraud and empower people to vote, a spokesperson says. IER also gives people the ability to register online, and could allow for online voting in future elections.

Despite the concerns, this timescale is set, and it’s up to the Cabinet Office to ensure the success of IER. Colin Dingwall is programme director of electoral registration transformation in the Cabinet Office. He says his team have sought to manage the fixed deadline by “working with the frontline from the very start” – helping councils to get to grips with the new system. They’ve also worked on several workstreams concurrently: “If we were going live on the new IT system, on legislation, on training practitioners in turn, it would have been a lot more difficult,” he notes.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been problems, or that they’ve all been resolved. Dingwall’s team have run a number of pilots since 2011, testing out the quality of current data; trialling new initiatives to boost the size of the electoral roll; and building an IT system that allows 380 local authorities to maintain the new electoral register. They’ve even tested out different sizes of paper for electoral registration forms.

Dingwall’s team has been working with the Government Digital Service to build an IT system that will allow all local authorities to access a single, up-to-date version of the electoral roll – currently, local authorities have their own software systems, and store data in different formats. The team has been trying to ensure the resulting system is intuitive, given that people will be able to register to vote online.

Electoral data is being matched with data held by DWP, in order to automatically register as many people on the current electoral roll as possible. If someone can be found on a DWP database, their current registration will be rolled across to the new lists. The Cabinet Office has piloted this approach across the country, in conjunction with the Electoral Commission, and believes that between 70 and 85% of the population will be automatically registered as a result.

Government also piloted a ‘data-mining’ technique, looking at public sector data to find people who aren’t currently registered to vote. These people would then have been contacted and encouraged to register. But the pilots proved unsuccessful, with the Electoral Commission suggesting that the technique was “unsustainable” because of the amount of resource it would require from local authorities.

Data protection issues have arisen, because data can only be used in ways set out at the point it was provided. The Information Commissioner’s Office has got involved here, helping to find ways to use the data and build in safeguards. Dingwall admits consistency of data in local authorities has also been a problem.

One of the groups least likely to register to vote is 18-24 year olds. The Cabinet Office has therefore launched an ‘Innovation Fund’ of £4.2m, which will go to schemes that will encourage this particular demographic to vote. These include the ‘Rock Enrol!’ scheme, which is intended to be written in a language that will chime with young people, and be “fun” and “engaging”. David believes this funding should be significantly larger. Ghose agrees, but does welcome the commitment from the Cabinet Office.

Though the government has made some compromises, the Electoral Reform Society calls for further changes. “We want to see all the political parties looking at the next phase: another registration revolution,” Ghose says. The ERS believes people should be able to turn up to register and vote on the same day. Smith, meanwhile, hinted that future elections could be conducted online.

Currently, though, the Cabinet Office team has enough on its plate trying to ensure that as many citizens as possible are registered to vote. Even if 85% are registered, that’s still 15% that must be contacted and encouraged to register. A democracy is only as healthy as the percentage of citizens able to take part. To twist an old quotation by Tom Stoppard: it’s not the voting that’s democracy; it’s the registration.

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