'Individual electoral registration was introduced in 2014. It cleaned up the rolls to a degree, but also cleaned them out of millions who should have been there.'
Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer and a Contributing Editor to Left Foot Forward
The means by which voters are registered sounds like a boring piece of bureaucratic detail – the kind of thing that the House of Lords would cover in an ill-attended debate on a Statutory Instrument in the secondary chamber, the Grand Committee, beneath the spectacularly bad Victorian biblical paintings that loom from the gloom of the windowless chamber.
But an amendment to introduce automatic voter registration – moved by the founder of Operation Black Vote Lord Woolley, with broad crossparty backing – is set to be one of the big debates on the Election Bill – along with the issues of the control of the Electoral Commission and the voter-suppression tactic known as Voter ID.
For it is far from a bureaucratic detail. Rather, it is the long-delayed completion of the democratic progression through 19th-century reform acts and the 20th-century delivery of women’s suffrage, a vital step to ensuring that everyone eligible actually has a vote available to them. Giving everyone who should have the right to vote the practical opportunity – as they don’t have now – is completing the work of delivering the franchise.
And it is a step towards improving the Bill. I’m pushing others, from tackling anti-democratic voter deposits to capping individual and company donations to political parties and candidates at £500, but automatic voter registration (with votes at 16) is the one with broadest support. For as I said at Second Reading, just because the government is trying to slash away what little democracy we have in this country, doesn’t mean we can’t use the opportunity to set out the route to actually making the archaic, dysfunctional UK constitution democratic.
For there are, from the electoral rolls, what is known as the “missing millions”, people eligible to vote but not registered for the right. An Electoral Commission study published in 2019 suggested their numbers exceed nine million, while more than five million people are incorrectly registered.
And these millions are not a randomly selected range of the population – it is the young and those in private rental accommodation (many of whom have to move often) who are massively under-represented, on the rolls, and by our so-called democracy. Those are the people least likely to vote Conservative. This isn’t just about individual rights, but the skewing of election results one way.
Individual electoral registration was introduced in 2014. It cleaned up the rolls to a degree, but also cleaned them out of millions who should have been there.
It isn’t even easy to check that you are registered correctly. “Contact the electoral services team at your local council”, says the Electoral Commission. What a faff. It’s been suggested that there should be a national website on which voters can check. Again, surely not that hard.
Automatic voter registration need not be complicated. Schools and colleges could register young people as “attainers” – those about to become voters – from the age of 16, and universities students. When you change the address on your driver’s licence, or register for council tax, or with the Department for Work and Pensions, that could feed into the electoral roll.
The government likes to talk about being world-leading. Well once again here the UK is trailing far behind. Among the nations with automatic registration are India, Mongolia, Argentina, Chile, Hungary and the Netherlands.
Of course automatic registration won’t guarantee that people will turn out to vote. Already, typically fewer than 70% of people on the roll vote in general elections, often 30% or less in council elections.
But giving people the opportunity is a start. And no, I’m not in favour of compulsory voting. That suggests the problem with low turnout is voters, when the “absurd” first-past-the-post electoral system means parliament is so unrepresentative of the people. Their vote so unlikely to count, that it is unsurprising that many who have registered (and, useful tip, it improves your credit score) don’t turn up at the polling station.
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