THE BLOG

Automatic Enrolment - A Radical Change Which Could Help Deliver True Equality of Access to Our Democracy

14/04/2015 09:35 BST | Updated 13/06/2015 10:59 BST

It's just over three weeks until the closest election in a generation. Every vote is going to be crucial in deciding who forms the next Government. It might well be your vote that makes the difference in your local area.

But to vote on 7 May, you first need to be registered. Unfortunately, changes made by the government mean millions who are eligible to vote may be missing from the electoral register. According to the Electoral Commission, 7.5million people aren't currently on the electoral register. And we know from research by the Commission that the kinds of people least likely to be registered to vote are young people, those who rent privately, the disabled, and members of the BAME community. Big towns and cities tend to have fewer people registered to vote than rural areas.

I've been a regular critic of this Government when it comes to voter registration. I think they've been way too casual about the damage caused by the move to the new individual electoral registration system. Our fears have been borne out - a further million people have dropped off the register in the last 12 months. The register is getting so badly depleted of eligible voters that the whole legitimacy of future elections will be drawn into doubt unless something drastic is done about it.

There are lots of reasons why people aren't registered to vote. For some, it's apathy. For others, there are language barriers in the way. Many don't even realise that the responsibility lies with them to apply for their vote in the first place. It's right that we fund schemes targeted at under-represented groups, as the health of our democracy depends on the completeness of the register. But ultimately this is papering over the cracks - the time has come for a more fundamental re-think.

Most people will have interacted with the Government in the last 12 months in one way or another. Paying Council Tax, attending college or university. Some are council tenants, others may have applied for a passport, a driving licence or registered their car. Nearly all of will have paid tax with some receiving some kind of benefit.

The amount of data that government agencies has is enormous. It is not a massive leap for this to be used to place on the electoral register those deemed eligible to vote. This would mean a big shift in responsibility from the individual to electoral registration officers. Of course, it'd still be important to give people to choice to opt out of the register, but this radical change could see millions more people signed up to vote. This can only be a good thing.

Already, in some other countries, automatic voter registration has been introduced. New South Wales in Australia was one of the first places, and more recently Oregon in the US has adopted it. There is talk that that California, the biggest US state, might follow suit.

Here in the UK, attention has turned to how we might learn the lessons from those who've moved to automatic enrolment. The Electoral Commission have thrown their weight behind the idea and it has also received support from across the political spectrum - the cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in their December 2014 report on Voter Engagement, said "we reaffirm our view that voters should ideally be registered to vote automatically".

If Labour wins the general election we will begin working on plans on how we can introduce automatic voter registration. But before then, we're stuck with the current system. So people will still need to get registered in order to vote on 7 May. The deadline for registering is 20 April. It can be done on line and takes less time than needed to drink a cup of coffee.

Labour believes in true equality of access to our democracy. This is why I'm determined that the next Labour Government will make it as easy as possible for people to vote. I hope other parties will support our plans. Their failure to do so means accepting the stain on our democracy of millions of people missing out on their right to vote.

Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan is the Shadow Justice Secretary and Shadow Minister for London