Millions may be missing from the electoral register, we need urgent reform
We call for further measures to improve security of registration and of postal voting, writes Lord Shutt. | PA Images
Groups such as young people, BAME voters and frequent home movers are particularly under-registered.
Since 2015 Britain has seen a rush of electoral events: three General Elections, the 2016 Brexit referendum, devolved elections in Scotland and Wales, and an unscheduled European election among others.
Just in time for this hectic period, a brand new registration system was introduced in the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.
Gone was the Victorian ‘head of household’ system with one household member registering everyone with a paper form; in its place came individual electoral registration, with a simpler online registration process and identity checks.
The Government hoped this would make registers more accurate, with fewer false entries, and complete, with more eligible voters on the register. For the last year, my House of Lords Committee has been studying how well the Act has worked in practice, and what other reforms might be needed.
Our key findings were stark: while the Act has helped improve register accuracy, it has not become more complete, and so millions of voters may still be missing from registers. Even more worryingly, groups such as young people, BAME voters and frequent home movers are still particularly under-registered.
This has implications not just for elections themselves, but other matters like the drawing of electoral boundaries: if registers are incomplete and inaccurate, many voters are disenfranchised, and Parliamentary seats cannot be fairly drawn.
The longer the law stays unreformed, the bigger risks there are to future elections.
The Government should take further action to bring registration into the 21st century and improve accuracy and completeness.
Options could include ‘automatic’ registration for young people as they become eligible, and ‘assisted’ registration, where voters are prompted to register when they access other services. Government must also set clear targets for improving registration among under-registered groups, and work with partners to ensure they are delivered.
The ease of the new online application system is very welcome, and registration drives before elections are important in ensuring everyone can cast their vote. Before the last election over 650,000 people applied to register on deadline day, and nearly two million entries were added to the register during the campaign. But many late applications are duplicates, which take huge amounts of time to process.
We recommend the Government urgently explores an online registration checking tool for voters to combat duplicate applications.
Additional registration activity places a huge burden on local administrators, who are already working extremely hard to ensure the sound running of elections. There must be a thorough review of funding provisions and arrangements both for electoral registration and election delivery, to ensure that election teams have the resources they need for the job.
Another key part of the Act was the provision for reform of the annual canvass, the process by which local election teams refresh their registers by contacting residents each year. The plans to streamline this process are welcome, but we conclude that the “invitation to register” process – where new voters need to be contacted twice – is cumbersome and confusing to voters, and needs reform.
Noting that the Act was brought in to tackle fraud, we also looked at how effective this had been and at the Government’s other fraud reduction initiatives.
We call for further measures to improve security of registration and of postal voting, and for reforms to the investigation process for fraud allegations and their treatment in the justice system.
We also call for the Government’s voter ID proposals to be developed carefully, allowing proper time for administrators to prepare and avoiding their introduction for the first time at a General Election.
Finally, we agree with the recent report of the Law Commissions that electoral law urgently needs consolidating and simplifying for administrators, campaigners and voters. The longer the law stays unreformed, the bigger risks there are to future elections.
We hope our report makes an important contribution to the ongoing debate over how we run our democracy, and how to ensure our system is fit for the future.
Lord Shutt is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords and chair of the electoral registration and administration act 2013 committee.