The principle of universal suffrage, the culmination of 100 years of electoral reform legislation, underpins our electoral system. We have a democratic record to be proud of - one we must continuously seek to uphold.
Until last year, our electoral registration system hadn't kept up with the polling day process it supports. We'd been one of the few countries to have clung on to an outmoded household survey system. It could not have been right that a 'head' of a household had the final say on who's registered. The introduction of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) under the Coalition was therefore a major step forward. It has enabled officials to remove redundant or fraudulent entries from the electoral roll by requiring applicants to submit identifying information, such as a National Insurance number. It's been largely successful, but there's no room for complacency.
A key improvement is that since June 2014 it's been possible to register online, making it much easier, quicker and secure than using a paper form. On 12 April alone, for instance, 136,000 people registered digitally. IER also embodies the principle that each of us must be responsible for our own registration - a key part of exercising our right to play an individual role in our democracy.
There are still obstacles to surmount. On the introduction of IER, some 85% of the eligible population were registered, a figure I described as 'a good record, which must be better'. Major efforts have been made by local authorities, parties and neutral campaigns - such as Bite The Ballot - in the 18 months since IER was phased in to ensure every eligible voter, who may not have been transferred over, was registered. This was in part about making public services work better: more efficiently, cost-effectively and with more choice. But it was also about tackling fraud: something we should never become complacent about.
Nonetheless, there remain significant disparities in registration levels between different demographics, for example, between those in social housing or private rented accommodation and owner-occupiers, or between older voters and 18-24s; up to a third of whom may not be registered. And we must remember that the gap between those who are eligible to vote, and those who have their names on the register, is growing.
It's vitally important that politicians of all parties work together to address this issue. I believe this can be done through dedicated education efforts, and by continuing to prioritise the issue by stressing what needs to be achieved. That's why I am chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation, and it's the reason why - as the only all-party group in existence - we've worked with Bite The Ballot and Dr Toby James to draw together solutions for reform in our report, 'Getting the 'Missing Millions' on to the electoral register: A vision for voter registration reform in the UK'.
Our report, launching on 18 April - the final day to register ahead of elections on 5 May - suggests measures that can be introduced to make registering easier, more accessible, and more efficient. Twenty-five solutions that will both drive down cost and engage hard-to-reach groups. Why do we not ensure that younger citizens leave school registered? Why do students not register when they enrol in university? Why can we not check our registration status online? And why can citizens not register when they access other services? Surely it's time to empower local authorities to use data they already hold cleverly, and enable them to devote resources to tracking down those who've changed address?
For our democracy to be as dynamic as possible, we need every individual of voting age participating in it. And we do need all ages. We have to balance different generations' aspirations and expectations. Having been elected at 27, and been one of the youngest Ministers in British history, I'm a passionate advocate of engaging young people in politics. The argument has to be made to those most disillusioned that voting is the key to bringing about change. And we have to tell them they can hold power in their own hands by taking the crucial first step of getting on the register.
This is why I'm especially hopeful of our recommendations for democracy education in schools, and a re-evaluation of citizenship education. It's vital to look to the future, and we have to get active, skills-based citizenship education right for the long-term. I've argued extensively that we must look ahead, work hard to serve young people and demonstrate to new generations that that we can help them express their values.
For these reasons, I'm proud of the APPG's first report, 'Missing Millions'. As MPs and Peers, we've worked together to present sensible, non-partisan suggestions for improvements. I look forward to the Government and Electoral Commission engaging with our findings.
With the deadline to register for the EU referendum fast approaching (7 June), and with only half of under-35s planning to vote on 23 June compared to 80% of over-55s, it's essential that young people take action and ensure they're on the roll. With the outcome of the referendum likely to affect young people the most - whether that's opportunities to work, study or travel - younger citizens shouldn't be locked out of this once-in-a-generation decision. It's a great example of the power young people hold. And it's a perfect way to demonstrate the necessity of getting voter registration reform right, now.
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