Don’t let electoral changes rob you of your chance to vote

Students and young people are falling off the register - we need to encourage them to make their voices heard

 

Russell Brand kicked off a firestorm in 2013 when he said that he has never voted and never will. As an elected councillor, it won’t surprise you that I disagree that voting is a waste of time. You give up your power to shape the big decisions affecting your life if you don’t vote.

The fact that we are bottom of the EU league tables for youth voting suggests Brand’s view of politics as irrelevant is catching on among young people, however. Wrong about the answers to the problem, Brand has somehow rightly sniffed out the mood seeping out across our country’s young population.

This problem just got a whole lot worse. The biggest change to how you register to vote is underway. The coalition government has shaken up the electoral registration system, so that people register to vote individually instead of allowing one person to sign up an entire household.

Across the country, thousands are falling off the electoral register. Cities where students make up more of the population than they do anywhere else are hardest hit. As a mobile population, moving from home to home in their university city as well as keeping a family home, without contact with the social security system or paid employment, there is a risk that many students will be unable to vote.

In the Oxford ward for which I’m the city councillor, hundreds of residents, most of them students, have fallen off the electoral register. In Oxford, there is a danger the size of the student population and its vulnerability to being de-registered will leave a large number of the city’s overall population unable to vote on Election Day.

Councils are facing uphill battles to get young people and students back onto the register in time for the general election. Britain is becoming a country where young people from all backgrounds could credibly conclude that every vote counts as long as you’re a white, middle-aged man.

So, please head online to check you’re registered to vote. If you aren’t registered, spend five minutes doing so and five more urging your friends to do the same.

Here’s the problem: how do you get the group hardest hit by the electoral shakeup and most reluctant to cross boxes at polling stations to sign up, turn out, and force politicians to take notice?

Local authorities are re-registering people who were registered by their universities. The evidence is clear that door-to-door, face-to-face canvassing makes a difference. But, council canvassers can find it tough going to get people to open their doors and fill in forms, especially during the daytime when students are taking part in lectures or tutorials. Even if a student opens their front door, they might not have to hand key personal identifiers like a National Insurance number to complete their registration.

Since the most effective way of raising registration can have drawbacks, we need to make as much noise as possible among people vulnerable to not knowing they have to sign up individually. National Voter Registration Day takes place on February 5 and councils are linking their promotional activity to this event. The Electoral Commission plan to repeat the campaign they ran before the 2010 election, including on Facebook, which led to 500,000 voter registration form downloads from their website.

Similar to a lot of other councillors, I’m going door-to-door to register people and putting the issue on every community, faith group, and residential association meeting that I attend. Earlier this week the city council in Oxford kicked off National Voter Registration Week by passing my motion supporting Ed Miliband’s proposed lowering of the voting age to 16 and our on-going registration of young and student voters. Within and without the council, we’re trying to make as much noise as possible about the vital importance of young people influencing the decisions that define our future.

Once the electoral returning officers have done their best, it’s over to the politicians to make people want to turn out and vote for their party. Everybody engaged in politics, whatever their level and role, have a duty not to drop the baton.

We all need to give young people reasons to feel that voting is the most effective way to achieve significant political change. And then I’m confident that our young and student population will keep the faith that they’re making the country a better place for themselves, their political causes, and the people they love.

Please register to vote here: www.gov.uk/register-to-vote

Tom Hayes is an Oxford City Councillor. Follow him on Twitter

 

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