Last week, I was encouraged to see more political parties coming around to the (long-held Liberal Democrat) view that we need to make voter registration easier, accessible and engaging, and allow young people to register from an early age. Only then can we seek to inspire future generations to take a stake in democracy and truly make 'politics' open to all citizens.
To this end, today is the formal first reading of my Voter Registration Bill in the House of Lords. I very much hope that Members from all parties (and none) welcome and support its aims.
As honorary President of the non-partisan movement, Bite The Ballot - a fantastic organisation seeking to empower young voters - I know just how enthusiastic young people are about political issues when they are taught about the power they hold at the ballot box. It is this simple premise that forms the basis of my Voter Registration Bill, which has two parts. The first concerns the sharing of information between government bodies and electoral registration officers; the second concerns the duties of electoral registration officers.
The Bill will authorise electoral registration officers to 'fill in the gaps' on the register using information (e.g. dates of birth and addresses) already held by bodies such as the Passport Office, DVLA and the NHS. Crucially, this will be an opt-in process and information will only be shared with electoral administrators with a person's consent. A similar initiative was introduced in the U.S.A. in 1993 - yes, twenty years ago! - via the National Voter Registration Act. It expanded voting rights and empowered more people from lower-income backgrounds to join the register.
With the transition from household to individual electoral registration (IER) this summer, it is vital that we introduce these changes now in order to prevent the feared mass 'drop-off' of certain groups from the Register. Peers debated this in May, and we'll continue to press the Government in this Session.
In Northern Ireland, the number of registered young people plummeted after the transition to IER and reforms that heralded the 'Schools Initiative' were brought in to rectify the situation. The 'Initiative' was responsible for registering 50% of young people in Northern Ireland between 2008-12: according to the Chief Electoral Officer, it's been "instrumental" to adding young voters to the roll.
The statistics paint a worrying picture, but the solution is simple. Bite The Ballot's resources make registration and democracy education simple and engaging; the two sides of the coin when it comes to the youth vote. Almost always, by the end of a 'BTB' school session, all students are ready to register; even if they were initially judgemental of politics and politicians.
This, I suggest, is something electoral registration officers should be doing as standard. It's a beautifully simple system that ensures our young people start their democratic journeys in the best possible way: with the desire to learn more about making informed choices on polling day. That's why the second part of the Bill requires electoral registration officers to take active steps to increase the number of people registered from under-represented groups, including organising at least one voter engagement session per year, per school or college in her area of responsibility.
This Bill is the first step in tackling our youth democracy crisis. We need to equip electoral registration officers with the right tools to make our democracy as strong as possible. This Bill, I suggest, is a leap in the right direction and I very much hope that the Government give it a fair hearing in this Parliamentary Session.
Not to do so will only fuel further resentment of decision-makers amongst future generations, making our bad situation, even worse.