Individual Electoral Registration: the Battle to Prevent the 'Missing Millions'

If voting becomes a minority pastime, our representatives' legitimacy plummets further and we lose all confidence that decisions are made with anything approaching a national mandate.

It seems the wake up call has been heeded. Today the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee warns of the potential 'damage to democracy' posed by the move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER).

Not many people have kept up with this. And by 'not many', we include most parliamentarians. But IER is a major reform, possibly the biggest change to the way we do elections since the Universal Franchise, and it was in jeopardy of sneaking onto the statute book without the scrutiny it deserves.

In principle IER is fairly simple. Registration would no longer be the responsibility of a Victorian 'head of household'. To guard against fraud IER requires every elector to sign up individually and provide identification that's used to verify their right to be on the register.

Today's report acknowledges what most of us have long agreed - that IER is the right move. But importantly it also urges caution on the nuts and bolts of implementation.

In a democracy you want as many people as possible to have their say. In new democracies we see citizens queuing round the block to cast their vote. Older democracies like ours suffer from fatigue and mistrust of politicians. Our outdated voting rules which make so many people feel their vote is wasted only compounds the problem.

The government's proposals will rightly remove those who should not be registered; sadly they could have a devastating impact on everyone else, by leaving up to 10-15 million legitimate citizens without a vote at the next General Election in 2015. This is a massive increase on current estimates of 3.5 million unregistered voters in England & Wales.

These people will include already under-registered groups: young people, people in social or rented accommodation on lower incomes and certain black and ethnic minority communities. But the changes are so sweeping they may also catch better off home movers or anyone who falls foul of the new requirements to produce identification.

If voting becomes a minority pastime, our representatives' legitimacy plummets further and we lose all confidence that decisions are made with anything approaching a national mandate.

The Committee's report outlines a series of recommendations to avoid the predicted drop-off of millions of eligible voters from the register. We are delighted that our recommendations to scrap the 'opt out', retain the threat of legal fines for non-registration and preserve the household canvass have all been taken on board. The government's proposals mean councils would have no carrot, no stick and no opportunity to target hard to reach citizens. If we want a complete and accurate register, then officials need the tools to get the job done.

The government needs reining in on its plans to make it possible for citizens to 'opt out' from democracy by telling officials not to provide information about registration. Being on the register is not just about rights, it's about responsibilities. It determines how public services are delivered, underpins the right to trial by jury of your peers, and sets how political boundaries are drawn. At a recent roundtable hosted by the Electoral Reform Society one suggestion was to scrap the voting register as the imprint and use population figures instead. Unregistered voters still look to their local MPs for help and representation and if the register looks to be as incomplete as some predict, this idea may take hold.

Registration is managed locally and must be assessed against the back drop of local government cuts. Roundtable attendee Michael Summerville, Electoral Registration Officer for London Borough of Hackney said:

"We have spent years building up the register. We're concerned that all that work will be undone. We could be looking at a 20-30,000 drop from a register of 165,000."

He speaks for many of those responsible for knocking on voters' doors when he expressed his fear about inadequate time and resources to prepare for the switchover.

The Cabinet Office is due to present their Pre Legislative Scrutiny Report in the next few weeks before the Bill itself is introduced to parliament in January. It is therefore vital that the pressure remains high to ensure that these issues are ironed out and that the recommendations from the report are heeded.

These missing millions can be avoided. The time for action is now.

You can download a full copy of the Committee's report on Individual Electoral Registration here and a full report on the Electoral Reform Society's roundtable on IER is here.

Find out more about the Electoral Reform Society and our work by visiting our website


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