OPINION
16/06/2020 10:25 BST

Coronavirus Means The Time For Automatic Electoral Registration Has Come

Everyone who is entitled to vote in this country should be able to do so, Judith Cummins MP writes.

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Directions to a polling station for a UK general election

The right to vote is an essential and fundamental democratic right. Under the current system of Individual Electoral Registration, individuals are solely responsible for registering and ensuring their details are up to date. 

Yet, research by the Electoral Commission in 2019 showed that more than 9.4 million people eligible to vote in the UK were either incorrectly registered or not registered at all. 

They also found that these missing voters were far more likely to be people from lower income backgrounds, or from BAME communities, or be young people or renters. In many cases, these are groups that feel increasingly disenfranchised from the political process. 

Not only are people missing from the register unable to vote, they are also not counted for the critically important purpose of determining constituency boundaries.

My Automatic Electoral Registration Bill, which I am introducing in the House of Commons today, has a very simple aim: to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote in this country is able to do so. 

It does that by moving away from the current system of electoral registration – one that is complicated, fragmented, and crucially, incomplete – to a new system, where individuals are automatically added to the register using data the Government already holds. 

In the current context, as we face a global pandemic that is disrupting every aspect of our lives and society, this is more important than ever. The problems the upcoming boundary review faces a result of this crisis make it abundantly clear that we urgently need a new approach to electoral registration. 

Operating with an incomplete register risks cementing unfairness into the system for at least eight years.

Given the cancellation of this year’s local elections and the significant pressures that local authorities are currently facing, the Government has said it will consider using a register from a different year. 

But if we had an automatic registration system – which continually updated the electoral roll using digital data from across government – we would be in a much better position to deal with this situation. 

We cannot know what the crises of the future will be. But we can prepare by building a robust registration system that is fit for the twenty-first century. 

I believe my bill improves the resilience and reliability of the electoral system, as well as making it fairer and ensuring every single person eligible to vote is able to do so. 

Its basic principle is that the state should do all that it can to ensure the electoral roll is as comprehensive and accurate as possible. It does this by using data already held by the government and public services to automatically register people to vote and to ensure their details are kept up to date. 

We would need to build in privacy and data security safeguards, but with those protections I believe we could finally have a modern and, crucially, completely accurate electoral register. 

Automatic electoral registration is a common-sense proposal that’s time has come. 

Judith Cummins is Labour MP for Bradford South.