Getting It Right: Voter Registration Lessons For The UK

In Britain, we have a serious, growing problem with the health of our democracy. Yet policy-makers have systematically failed to look beyond our shores and undertake even a basic search for the available solutions to our problems.

One result of our globalised, Internet-ready world is that it if something's broken, it's much easier to learn from others about how to fix it. You Google it, or you head to YouTube. You connect with people from across the planet, and you make use of shared experiences.

In Britain, we have a serious, growing problem with the health of our democracy. Yet policy-makers have systematically failed to look beyond our shores and undertake even a basic search for the available solutions to our problems.

An analysis of yesterday's data from the Office of National Statistics revealed that the parliamentary electoral register, which you must be on to vote in June's EU referendum, has seen a dramatic fall. The register as of 1 December 2015 had 44,722,004 names on it. That's 1.4 million less than were there two years ago.

The numbers are especially depressing for 'attainers' (16- and 17-year-olds who'll soon be eligible to vote) as there's been a fall of 189,760. This means that over 40% of the next generation of voters have been removed from the electoral register.

This drop coincides precisely with the introduction of individual electoral registration (IER), the most significant change to our registration system in 98 years. It comes in spite of us now being able to register online, and the herculean efforts of campaigners, NVRD activists and many electoral administrators running registration drives up and down the country.

It also reaffirms predictions, grounded in the experience of practitioners (presented to Parliament in 2011, and again in 2014), that requiring all citizens to register individually and asking them to provide their N. I. numbers would reduce levels of registration. And it reaffirms the evaluations of academics and poll workers that, though the 2015 general election was conducted well by international standards, the greatest problem was the quality of the electoral register.

It is vital that the Government - and all political parties - look beyond partisan lines, and take urgent action to solve this problem. The signs are good, but we need action for our leaders, not just words.

'Best practice' can be taken from many quarters. Given that the number of elections held around the world has risen massively since 1945, there's plenty of scope for draw lessons from others. Academics have identified the methods of registration which are most likely to increase registration rates and boost turnout. For example, in the 1990s, Americans realised that if we were asked to register to vote when we applied for a driver's licence, we'd be more likely to join the electoral register (though this idea was ignored by the Government in 2014). Rather than having many overlapping electoral registers, Canadians decided in 1997 that they should have one national register and have reaped the benefits since; maintaining a registration rate of 93% at a cost of just 18p per person. And more recently, in Oregon, reforms have been brought in to automatically register citizens. Ideas worth copying.

Some reforms are much closer to home, however. In Northern Ireland, a proven and successful "schools initiative" was introduced after IER wiped almost every young person off the roll in the 2000s. Championed in Great Britain by Bite The Ballot since 2013, the scheme is praised by Northern Ireland's Chief Electoral Officer as the "most productive part of [their] community engagement programme". Whilst registering to vote in school may sound like a no-brainer, the "initiative" - which has been repeatedly called for by every party in the UK Parliament and every leader in Wales - is yet to be rolled-out across all of the UK.

The UK's community of policy makers designing electoral law have historically been isolated from international networks, taking misplaced comfort from the idea that Britain, the mother of parliaments, is a leading light in the world. A glance through Government papers provide few references to experiences from Northern Ireland and further afield, academic research or the ideas of civil society. But the 'missing millions' from the register provide an opportunity to reverse this, by encouraging active listening, and open policy-making, to improve our democracy for the long-term.

The solutions exist, the time is now. It's time to get democracy right at home.

Toby James is a Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia and Fellow to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Democratic Participation. Oliver Sidorczuk is the Policy Coordinator for Bite The Ballot and Convenor of the APPG.

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